Can Doctors Be Sued for Medical Malpractice if a Patient Dies by Suicide?
It seems obvious to say it, but mental health issues are health issues. And as with any type of health concern, when someone is suffering from depression, anxiety, or other forms of mental illness, they may seek the help of a medical professional or licensed therapist.
If a patient was suffering from chest pain and consulted a cardiologist, it seems obvious that the doctor should run tests: an electrocardiogram, blood tests for elevated enzymes, and so forth. Furthermore, it seems obvious that after running those tests, the doctor would be obligated to interpret them carefully and correctly. If she failed to do either of those things, and the patient left the office or hospital and suffered a massive heart attack shortly after, the doctor would probably be liable for medical malpractice.
Of course, there are no lab tests or machines that can indicate a patient’s suicidality. Even so, psychiatrists and mental health professionals have tools they can use to discover whether patients are likely to harm themselves, which fall under the umbrella of “lethality assessment.” There are also protocols for what to do if mental health patients are assessed as lethality risks. A psychiatrist or therapist who ignores the signs of suicidality, or fails to look for them, may also be liable for malpractice.
Proving Medical Malpractice in a Patient Suicide
Proving medical malpractice is more difficult than it might seem. Just because a person is being seen by a psychiatrist or therapist who fails to anticipate their suicide or suicide attempt doesn’t mean there has been malpractice. As with other types of medical malpractice claims, the party making a claim of malpractice must prove four things, known as the elements of medical malpractice:
- Duty of care: The provider had a duty to care for the client or patient based on their relationship. This is generally the easiest element to prove; if a psychiatrist has a doctor-patient relationship with the patient, whether in the therapy office, the emergency department, or an inpatient hospital floor, this relationship has been established. The doctor then has a duty to provide care that is not negligent.
- Breach of duty/negligence: A doctor’s duty of care stems from the “standard of care;” in other words, what a reasonable doctor in a similar situation would do. For instance, if a reasonable doctor in the emergency department would order an inpatient admission for a depressed patient who had both a plan and the means to die by suicide, a doctor who discharged the patient without support and follow-up would likely have breached their duty of care, and been negligent.
- Harm/Damages: Someone must actually suffer harm in order for there to be a claim for medical malpractice. For instance, in the above scenario, even if the doctor negligently discharged a clearly suicidal patient, if the patient decided not to attempt suicide after all, the element of harm in a malpractice claim would not be met.
- Causation: It must be possible to show that the doctor’s negligent act was the cause of the harm. For instance, let’s say the patient’s discharge was contingent on a safety plan in which his wife agreed to have all weapons removed from the house, stay in the same room with her husband through the night, call 911 if needed, and get the husband into an emergency appointment with his therapist in the morning. If the wife then left the husband alone with access to guns and ammunition while she went out, and he killed himself, it would be much harder to prove that it was the doctor’s negligence that caused the suicide.
Generally, negligence and causation are difficult to prove in suicide cases. The defense will argue that the person was going to commit suicide no matter what and that this tragic outcome was inevitable; how was the provider going to prevent this person from harming themselves?
Most cases are not clear-cut. An action that seems unwise in retrospect, such as removing a hospitalized patient from suicide watch after some improvement in their condition, may not rise to the level of a breach of the duty of care.
The Value of Experienced Medical Malpractice Attorneys in Suicide Liability Cases
Suicide cases are emotionally devastating for the family of the deceased as well as the providers who missed the red flags. Suicide liability medical malpractice cases are rarely open-and-shut. Doctors must make judgment calls on what course of action to take. But any ‘judgment call’ must still be within the standard of care. Not every ‘judgment call’ actually demonstrates sound and reasoned medical thinking. However, so long as those actions fall under the umbrella of what a reasonable physician might do, there likely will be no finding of negligence.
This is why it is essential to work with an experienced Oregon medical malpractice attorney in these cases. Attorneys who regularly practice in the area of medical malpractice are skilled in investigating the details that can make or break these cases. They also have working relationships with expert witnesses who can present information in such a way as to “connect the dots” for a jury.
Losing a loved one to suicide is devastating. No amount of money can make up for the loss you have suffered, but holding a negligent doctor responsible can help to bring closure. If you have questions about a doctor’s liability for a loved one’s suicide or suicide attempt, we invite you to contact Huegli Fraser to schedule a consultation.
The information in this blog post is provided for informational purposes only and is not intended to be legal advice. You should not make a decision whether or not to contact a qualified medical malpractice attorney based upon the information in this blog post. No attorney-client relationship is formed nor should any such relationship be implied. If you require legal advice, please consult with a competent medical malpractice attorney licensed to practice in your jurisdiction.