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Holding Doctors and Hospitals Accountable for Patient Suicides

Tragically, each year 44,193 Americans commit suicide (https://afsp.org/about-suicide/suicide-statistics/), often times leaving family members asking themselves why or how this could have happened. In most scenarios, no legal action will be taken after this period of self-reflection and personal investigation.

However, in limited scenarios, family members of a suicide victim may be able to bring a medical malpractice lawsuit against a hospital or health care provider (e.g., a psychiatrist, psychologist, or primary care doctor) for contributing to the suicide. Recently, the Florida Supreme Court held that a health care provider may be held liable for failing to provide adequate medical care to an outpatient who, as a result of that health care provider’s failures, commits suicide. See Chirillo v. Granicz, 199 So. 3d 246 (Fla. 2016).

In Chirillo, the decedent’s estate brought a medical malpractice lawsuit against Dr. Joseph Chirillo, Jr., the decedent’s primary care doctor, for breaching his duty of care in treating the decedent. In that case, the patient had a history of depression, and began seeing Dr. Chirillo in 2005. Shortly after the first visit, Dr. Chirillo switched the decedent’s medication from Prozac to Effexor, another antidepressant.

Three years later, the patient called Dr. Chirillo’s office and advised his medical assistant that she had abruptly stopped taking the Effexor because it was causing her to experience side effects, such as insomnia and having to take more sleeping pills, being under mental strain and easily crying, and having gastrointestinal problems. The patient also described that she had not “felt right” for several months. Upon receiving the message, instead of immediately setting up an appointment, Dr. Chirillo changed the patient’s antidepressant medication to Lexapro and referred her to a gastroenterologist. Dr. Chirillo’s office called the patient and told her that she could pick up her Lexapro prescription along with some samples, which she did.

Unfortunately, the patient took her own life the following day. In the lawsuit, the estate provided evidence that Dr. Chirillo knew that patients who abruptly stopped taking Effexor had an increased risk of suicide, and that stopping Effexor was a “contributing factor” in the suicide. On these facts, the Florida Supreme Court found that there was enough to allow a jury decide whether Dr. Chirillo was responsible (in whole or in part) for the suicide.

But the Florida Supreme Court was careful to explain that a health care provider’s obligations to an “outpatient” are different from those obligations to an “inpatient.”

Duties in an “Inpatient” or “Custodial” Setting

Generally, one cannot be held liable for another’s suicide in the absence of a specific “duty of care.” However, under Florida law, there are situations where one can “assume” such a duty by taking custody or control over the person. For example, there is a specific duty to prevent suicide when a patient is committed to a psychological institution or mental health facility, or where the child is under the supervision of a school. See Surloff v. Regions Bank, 179 So. 3d 472 (Fla. 4th DCA 2015). In a hospital setting, the specific duty is based on the patient’s confinement in the hospital, and the hospital’s ability to supervise, monitor, and restrain the patient. See Paddock v. Chacko, 522 So. 2d 410 (Fla. 5th DCA 1998).

In sum, when a patient with suicidal tendencies is admitted to a hospital or mental health facility and harms himself or takes his own life, that hospital or mental health facility may be liable for failing to safeguard and protect that patient from harm. This is so because such facilities are in a position to exercise measures to prevent suicidal patients from inflicting injuries on themselves.

At Freidin Brown, P.A., our team is currently litigating a case where a psychiatric patient with suicidal tendencies was improperly safeguarded by the hospital, and as a result, the patient jumped out the fourth-floor window and sustained serious and permanent disabilities.

Duties in an “Outpatient” Setting

When a patient is being seen by a medical professional on an “outpatient” basis, there is no duty for the doctor to “prevent” suicide. Rather, a medical professional’s duty in suicide cases is no different than the general duty in medical malpractice cases: to treat patients in accordance with the prevailing standard of care in the medical field.

If a medical professional is found to have breached the prevailing standard of care to a patient in an “outpatient” setting, then that medical professional may be responsible for the resulting suicide if it was foreseeably and substantially caused by the doctor’s errors.

At Freidin Brown, we were recently retained to represent the minor children of a patient who committed suicide after being discharged from a mental health facility. In this case, we are investigating the health care providers’ liability for (1) failing to continue the patient on the appropriate antipsychotic medications; (2) discharging the patient on oral antipsychotic medications despite documented history of noncompliance; and (3) ignoring multiple complaints from family members regarding the patient being a threat to himself and others.

If a family member recently committed suicide, and you suspect that he or she was not given proper medical treatment, it is important that you immediately contact us so that we may analyze the case. Generally, in suicide cases, the personal representative of the decedent’s estate has two (2) years to bring suit under Florida’s statute of limitations. Thus, time is of the essence.

Once you contact us with your case, our experienced attorneys will answer any questions you have and conduct a full assessment of the case in order to determine whether a medical professional or facility can be held accountable for your love one’s suicide. This consultation is 100% risk free, and all consultations are completely confidential.

Freidin Brown, P.A. is a proven personal injury law firm backed by more than a century of collective experience. Together, our Miami personal injury attorneys have handled over 300 jury trials, many in excess of $1 million. If you or someone you love was seriously injured in an accident, do not hesitate to contact our legal team for help. We are available 24/7 to take your call, and our contingency fee policy means you’ll pay nothing upfront for the legal services we provide. Contact us today at 888.650.0918 for a free consultation.

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