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A physician, psychiatrist, or psychologist is treating a patient, and during the treatment period, the patient unfortunately takes his own life. The family members are anguished and angry, and they claim that the doctor was negligent in failing to take the proper steps to prevent the tragic event. The question of whether or not they will prevail in a medical malpractice action depends on the specific facts of the case, focusing on the reasonableness of the treatment in light of the patient's history.
Under general tort law principles, a person has no duty to prevent another individual from hurting himself or from taking his own life. However, courts have determined that under certain circumstances, a special relationship may exist between a doctor and his patient, giving rise to that duty.
Even if a physician, psychiatrist, or psychologist has a duty to prevent a patient from committing suicide, the medical care provider is not legally responsible for the patient's suicide unless the provider could reasonably have foreseen the patient's action. Indicators of behavior exhibited to a health care provider that might make suicide foreseeable include a patient's express intention to take his own life, increased telephone calls, more frequent visits, and a request for more medications.
Based on the specific facts of the case, courts have found mental health care providers liable when they failed to properly assess a patient's suicidal tendencies and therefore failed to take steps required to prevent the suicide. In other instances, claims of medical malpractice have been successful when the treating physician did not disclose pertinent information to a patient's family members and failed to warn them of the risk of suicide.
A physician's administration of inappropriate drugs, his failure to administer proper drugs, and a failure to inform a patient or his family about the dangers of exceeding a recommended dose or combining the drug with alcohol have led to findings of medical malpractice, as have a physician's failure to confine a patient or to select an appropriate hospital for commitment.
The major issue requiring proof in an action against a physician, psychiatrist, or psychologist for failing to prevent a patient's suicide is the determination of whether the physician made an honest mistake in medical judgment, which does not lead to liability, or whether his conduct rises to the level of negligence. Normally, this determination involves expert testimony on whether the physician deviated from the acceptable standard of care.
Courts are generally reluctant to allow total relief from or a reduction of a negligent physician's liability due to the negligence of the patient himself. A patient who has committed suicide is considered to have a diminished capacity to make reasonable decisions. In addition, courts have rejected the theory that suicide is an independent intervening act that breaks the connection of the patient's death to any negligence on the part of a physician.
Some states have granted official immunity to physicians employed by them, while other jurisdictions have granted immunity only if the physician's conduct did not rise to the level of gross negligence or reckless disregard for the results of his actions.
Copyright 2012 LexisNexis, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc.