Psychiatrists’ Liability for Patient’s Violence Against Other People: Washington Supreme Court Abolishes the Inpatient-Outpatient Distinction

By Alex Stein

In a recent decision, Volk v. DeMeerleer, 386 P.3d 254 (Wash. 2016), the Washington Supreme Court relaxed the “control” prerequisite for psychiatrists’ duty to protect third parties against violent patients.

The Court made this decision in a case involving a psychiatric patient who murdered his girlfriend and her nine-year old son and then committed suicide (after attempting to kill the girlfriend’s older son as well). For nine years leading up to that tragedy, the patient received outpatient care from the defendant psychiatrist, during which he expressed suicidal and homicidal ideations (without naming the potential victims).

The Court held that the psychiatrist had a “special relationship” with the victims because he was able to control the patient. Correspondingly, the psychiatrist had a duty to exercise “reasonable care to act consistent with the standards of the mental health profession, in order to protect the foreseeable victims of his or her patient.” The Court reasoned in this connection that some ability to control the patient’s conduct is sufficient for the “special relationship” and the consequent duty of care to exist. For that reason, psychiatrists should assume responsibility not only for an inpatient’s actions, but also in connection with an outpatient’s violence against third parties. Continue reading

Outpatient Psychiatric Treatment: The Duty to Prevent Patient Suicide

By Alex Stein

In Chirillo v. Granicz, — So.3d —- (Fla. 2016), 2016 WL 4493536, the Florida Supreme Court formulated an important rule for psychiatric malpractice cases. Back in 2001, the First District Court of Appeal decided that psychiatrists assume no liability for an outpatient’s suicide because it is generally unforeseeable. Tort liability, it held, can properly be imposed on a psychiatrist only for a custodial psychiatric malpractice. According to the First District, an inpatient’s suicide is foreseeable and psychiatrists can effectively prevent it by restraining the patient. Lawlor v. Orlando, 795 So.2d 147 (Fla. 1st DCA 2001).

The Florida Supreme Court has now overruled Lawlor. Continue reading

“Proximate Cause” and the Patient Suicide Problem

By Alex Stein

This difficult problem and the underlying human tragedy have recently been adjudicated by the Supreme Court of Mississippi in Truddle v. Baptist Memorial Hosp.-Desoto, Inc., — So.3d —- (Miss. 2014).

A hospital patient suffering from a number of illnesses became agitated and aggressive. He took the IV out of his arm and attempted to leave the hospital. When nurses stopped him and forced him back to his room, he hallucinated that someone was trying to rape him. Despite these psychiatric symptoms, the patient was discharged and treated as an outpatient. During his outpatient treatment, he complained to his doctor that the medications he was taking “make him crazy.” Six days after his release from the hospital and two days after his last outpatient appointment, the patient barricaded himself in his bedroom and committed suicide.  Continue reading