In most civil cases involving liability for someone’s death, it’s usually pretty easy to link the defendant (the person who is allegedly at fault) with the actions that caused the death (e.g., a driver runs a red light and strikes a pedestrian, killing them; a surgeon makes an obvious error during a routine procedure and the patient dies).
This is also true in civil cases in which family members or other loved ones try to hold someone else (in most cases, an institution such as a hospital or treatment center) liable for a suicide of their loved ones.
According to the Psychiatric Times, of the 35,000 or more suicides per year in the US, about 1,800 (6%) are inpatient suicides. This statistic is too high.
Determining Civil Liability
By definition, someone who commits suicide directly causes of his or her own death. As such, in the case of a personal injury lawsuit against a defendant who allegedly caused someone else’s suicide, the onus that falls on the prosecution is proving the defendant’s actions (or inaction, in most cases) were a substantial factor in the deceased person’s suicide. This is usually easy to prove. Most, if not all inpatient suicides are preventable if the standard of care is followed by the healthcare providers entrusted to care for the suicidal patient.
Another major element in a case of suicide is “foreseeability.” That is, was it reasonably foreseeable that the deceased person would commit suicide as a result of the defendant’s action or inaction? For instance, psychiatrists have a duty to protect their patients by properly assessing their potential risk of suicide. Reasonable precautions, such as one to one monitoring of the patient, need to be taken after the risk is identified and maintained until the risk is deemed low enough or the patient is discharged.
Inpatient suicides are viewed as the most avoidable and preventable because they occur in close proximity to staff. Additionally, courts and juries generally perceive inpatient units as having a greater degree of control over the patient and, thus, a greater responsibility to prevent suicides.1
Proving Liability in Suicide Cases
When it comes to proving an institution is liable for the patient’s suicide or injury, the plaintiff (the person bringing the lawsuit) must first prove that the provider was negligent in their care for the patient.
Negligence occurs when a health provider (including physicians, psychologists, social workers, counselors, therapists, or hospital employees) fails to comply with the standard of practice for providers with similar training and experience. In some cases, the provider may have done something a reasonably prudent provider would not have done in the same/similar situation. In other cases, the provider has failed to do something that a reasonably prudent provider would have done.
If the plaintiff can prove negligence on the part of the provider, they must then prove that the defendant’s negligence caused the suicide or other injury. At this point, it becomes important to determine if the health provider could have or should have anticipated the suicide attempt or some other injury (this goes back to foreseeability).
Because no mental health provider can guarantee a successful result, they will not be held liable simply because the treatment failed. The care must have been negligence, or the provider will not be liable.
Who Can File a Suit Following a Suicide?
Although a suicide affects all of us, the law only grants certain individuals the right to pursue a lawsuit arising out of a patient’s death. If negligence by a mental health professional causes injury short of death, typically only the patient has the right to bring a lawsuit.
In some circumstances, the patient’s spouse can join as a party to the lawsuit, recovering for the injury that he or she personally sustained as a result of the negligent treatment of the patient.
Where the negligence has resulted in death, the proper action is a wrongful death and survival suit. This action is brought either by the patient’s spouse, parents, and/or children, the decedent’s estate, or both. The law varies from state to state. That’s why you should get a legal opinion specifically tailored to your case.
At GreeningLaw P.C., we see too many Americans losing family members to suicide because they assumed their loved ones were receiving competent, professional care. That’s why we feel that reducing the suicide rate in America’s healthcare institutions starts with holding mental health professionals accountable.
GreeningLaw P.C. is one of the most recognized personal injury law firms in the state because we know how to make sure you are properly compensated for your suffering. Our experienced attorneys care about you and your outcome, and we will treat your case with the same respect and thoroughness with which we would our own families. We work on a contingency basis, meaning you don’t pay for anything unless you receive compensation for your case.
Contact us today for a free consultation. We will review the elements of your case, discuss the possible compensation you may receive, and suggest the best course of action.
We fight the legal battle so you have time for healing and renewal.
- Knoll, J. (2012). Inpatient Suicide: Identifying Vulnerability in the Hospital Setting. [online] Psychiatric Times. Available at: http://www.psychiatrictimes.com/suicide/inpatient-suicide-identifying-vulnerability-hospital-setting [Accessed 18 Oct. 2018].