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

“Error in Judgment” and Informed Consent

By Alex Stein

When conventional standards of practice allow a physician to choose between two or more ways to treat or diagnose a patient, she is free to select any of those ways. The fact that her chosen procedure subsequently proves inferior to the alternatives and works badly for the patient is of no consequence: the physician would not be liable for malpractice because malpractice accusations only attach to actions and not to consequences. Whether a physician did or did not deliver substandard treatment to the patient must be determined prospectively (ex ante) rather than by hindsight (ex post). Because a medically approved procedure that proves inferior to another recommended procedure appears negligent, jurors must receive an effective warning against this misleading appearance. How to best administer this warning is a matter of split among state courts. Continue reading

Lost Chances to Recover: An Elaboration

By Alex Stein

An important development of the lost-chance doctrine recently took place in Rash v. Providence Health & Services, — P.3d —- (Wash.App.Div.3 2014).

An 82-year old patient with a critical heart condition was hospitalized to undergo surgery. The patient’s heart condition made her death inevitable, but she managed to prolong her life with the help of medications. The hospital negligently failed to give the patient blood pressure medications. As a result, the patient suffered a series of strokes from which she died. The hospital’s negligence thus accelerated the patient’s demise.

The patient’s heirs sued the hospital for medical malpractice. The patient’s preexisting condition doomed the plaintiffs’ claim that the hospital’s negligence was the but-for cause of her death. The plaintiffs consequently demanded compensation for the lost chance of  better outcome, pursuant to Herskovits v. Grp. Health Coop. of Puget Sound, 664 P.2d 474 (Wash. 1983); and Mohr, 262 P.3d 490 (Wash. 2011). Continue reading

The Battle of Privileges

By Alex Stein

When a patient files a malpractice suit against a doctor, she waives the evidentiary privilege that protects the information pertaining to her treatment by the doctor. This information extends to all communications between the patient and the doctor, the patient’s medical history, diagnosis, treatment, and medical records. The patient’s waiver of the privilege is not absolute. Rather, it relates only to information and documents needed for the doctor’s defense. The same principle applies to the patient’s treating physician whom she did not sue. The defendant is entitled to subpoena this nonparty physician and obtain from her information and documents relevant to his defense.

To realize this entitlement, the defendant’s attorney needs to interview the nonparty physician before trial. The patient’s attorney demands to be present at that interview to protect her client’s privilege by appropriately limiting the physician’s questioning by the defendant’s attorney. The defendant’s attorney counters this demand by invoking the attorney-client privilege and its “work product” extension.

This battle of privileges has no easy solution. Continue reading

Unconstitutional Time Bars in Washington

By Alex Stein

Schroeder v. Weighall — P.3d —-, 2014 WL 172665 (Wash. 2014), is the second Washington Supreme Court’s decision that voids the Legislature’s time bar for medical malpractice suits.  The first decision, DeYoung v. Providence Medical Center, 960 P.2d 919 (Wash. 1998), voided an eight-year repose provision for violating the constitutional prohibition on special privileges (Article I, section 12). This statutory provision benefited healthcare providers and their insurers at the expense of injured patients whose cause of action accrued over a long period of time and consequently tolled the statute of limitations.  The Court held that the Legislature had no rational basis for blocking suits filed in connection with more-than-eight-years-old incidents of medical malpractice. The Court based that decision on the finding by the National Association of Insurance Commissioners that old medical malpractice incidents account for “less than one percent of all insurance claims nation-wide.” This finding convinced the Court that the “relationship between the goal of alleviating any medical insurance crisis and the class of persons affected by the eight-year statute of repose is too attenuated to survive rational basis scrutiny.”

In Schroeder, the Court used the same constitutional prohibition to void a new statutory provision that eliminated tolling of the statute of limitations for minors in medical malpractice actions. Continue reading