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What Does it Take to Sue for Psychiatric Malpractice in the Suicidal Death of a Loved One?

When people take their own lives, it's natural for surviving family members to question what may have led their loved ones to kill themselves or what could have been done to stop them.

If you suspect your loved one's psychiatrist contributed to the person's suicidal mindset or failed in his or her duty to prevent the person from following through with the act, it may be possible to sue the doctor for psychiatric malpractice. Here's what it takes to successfully litigate this type of case.

Elements of Psychiatric Malpractice

The elements of psychiatric malpractice are similar to those required for suing healthcare providers for medical malpractice:

  • There was a doctor-patient relationship. The psychiatrist either agreed to treat the patient or was required to do so as a part of his or her job.
  • The psychiatrist breached his or her duty of care to the patient.
  • The patient must have suffered physical, mental, or emotional harm.
  • The doctor's breach must have been the cause of the harm to the patient.

All of these elements must be proven true. Any one element that can't be proven will typically result in the court siding with the defendant. For instance, if the psychiatrist had sexual contact with the patient—which is typically automatically considered a breach of duty of care by the courts—but the patient didn't commit suicide because of that contact, then the practitioner would not be held liable for the person's death, even though the doctor's behavior may be deemed unethical.

Areas of Liability

There are two areas where a psychiatrist could be held liable for a patient's suicide death: prescribing medication in a negligent manner and failing to take adequate steps to prevent the individual from committing suicide.

1. Prescribing Medication in a Negligent Manner

Psychiatrists are required to adhere to the same standards as medical doctors when prescribing medication. They must:

  • Ensure the medication prescribed is the appropriate treatment for the mental health issue
  • Inform the patient of potential side effects
  • Monitor the patient for signs of harm and take appropriate action

If the professional fails in any of these areas and that failure leads to the suicide death of the patient, then he or she could be held liable for the person's demise.

2. Failure to Prevent Suicide

Another area where a psychiatrist could be held liable for someone's suicide death is if the doctor knew the person was at risk for self-harm and didn't take adequate preventative measures. For instance, if a patient tells the doctor he or she is going to commit suicide and the doctor doesn't do anything to stop the individual, such as committing the patient to a medical facility or warning the family members, then the doctor could be held responsible.

However, these types of cases aren't always so clear-cut. They often hinge on proving the doctor's assessment of the individual's suicide risk was incorrect, which can be challenging. A patient may show enough signs of improvement to warrant being taken off suicide watch but then go on to commit suicide soon after.

Another challenge is you'll need to show the preventative action the doctor took was inadequate. It's important to understand, though, that the court measures the doctor's actions against the standard of what a reasonable and careful professional in a similar situation would do. This standard may be very different from what you think the psychiatrist should have done, so it's important to maintain a proper perspective when litigating this type of case.

According to some statistics, up to 80 percent of psychiatrists sued for malpractice win their cases. To maximize the chances of winning your case, you should consult with a medical negligence law firm such as Davidson Law Center Inc to develop an effective legal strategy for getting the court judgment you want.