The recent tragic deaths of Kate Spade and Anthony Bourdain, as well as the popularity of Netflix’s series, 13 Reasons Why, have cast a spotlight on suicide. The loss of anyone to suicide often feels preventable, and it’s common to question the quality of the psychological care the victim received.
Research has shown that with proper mental health treatment, most suicides can be prevented. When a person takes his or her own life, the victim’s loved ones wonder if a medical malpractice or wrongful death lawsuit is possible – and the short answer is yes.
How to Prove Liability in Suicide-Related Lawsuits
Depression is a common ailment of mental health patients. When depressed, suicide may cross the patient’s mind as a way to end mental anguish and suffering. Accordingly, the patient may have discussed suicidal thoughts with a psychiatrist, psychologist, or therapist.
Once suicide has been discussed, the possibility of a lawsuit increases. The first element for establishing the legal claim is the question of “foreseeability.” In other words, how likely did it seem to the healthcare provider that the victim would take his or her life?
Not every mention of suicide is an actionable red flag. Simply stating, “I’ve thought about suicide,” may not be enough to show an imminent threat. Instead, the following criteria are stronger indicators that the death of the victim was foreseeable:
- Did the victim actually attempt to take his or her life?
- Did the victim show suspect behavior such as giving away personal property or saying goodbye?
- Did the patient speak of a detailed suicide plan?
- How much time passed between the patient’s discussion of suicidal thoughts with the mental health provider and the actual suicide?
- Was the patient on medication that increases suicidal tendencies?
- Was the mental health provider aware that the patient had a history of drug or alcohol abuse?
- Did the professional know of the patient’s past physical or sexual abuse?
- Was the patient experiencing a traumatic, life-changing event such as loss of a loved one, unemployment, divorce, etc.?
- Did the psychiatrist or therapist offer mental health resources such as hotlines or group therapy options?
The list of possible suicidal predictors goes on, and the questions don’t always have black and white answers. A judge or jury may need proof of one or more of the above before rendering a final judgment, and the level of liability also increases if the patient is a minor.
If enough criteria establish an urgent threat of suicide, the next element of fault falls on whether the professional took the appropriate steps to prevent the tragedy. A mental health provider has to balance his or her responsibility to maintain patient-physician confidentially with the need to communicate the risk of suicide to the patient’s loved ones or other authorities. Only if the provider failed to take a reasonable course of action would compensation be awarded.
Taking the Case to Trial
With so many gray areas to consider in a civil lawsuit involving suicide, these cases are never clear-cut. The litigation becomes more complex as expert witnesses in the mental health field are typically needed. Personal details about the victim’s life also may need to be presented in the courtroom.
Navigating these emotionally-charged waters is certainly tough. With statute of limitation concerns and other legal red tape for these cases, the victim’s family is strongly encouraged to contact an attorney as soon as they are emotionally prepared to discuss the tragedy. It is important to note that the lawsuit can only be filed by direct relations such as a child, parent or spouse.
If you lost a loved one to suicide and believe the patient’s psychiatrist or therapist negligently missed the warning signs, please contact us today – the attorneys in Sommers Schwartz’s Medical Malpractice Litigation Group can help.