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Failure to Involuntarily Commit Suicidal Patient Can Be Malpractice


A psychiatrist’s failure to involuntarily commit to a psychiatric facility a patient who subsequently attempts suicide can constitute a breach of the duty of care owed to the patient. Whether the time since the patient’s last contact with the psychiatrist was too remote to be considered a proximate cause of the suicide attempt is a question of fact for the jury.

 

In this case, the patient had a history of mental illness and had attempted suicide by jumping off of a balcony into an empty swimming pool. She was involuntarily committed to a hospital, then moved to a voluntary treatment facility. She was discharged two days later, but admitted again the following week. The defendant psychiatrist diagnosed her with multiple psychiatric disorders and prescribed medication. The patient was voluntarily discharged three days later without being subjected to a suicide assessment or psychiatric evaluation, even though she had been admitted due to a danger of suicide. Two days later she set herself on fire.

 

In the patient’s subsequent malpractice action, the trial court denied the psychiatrist’s motion for summary judgment. The appellate court affirmed the denial. It declined to adopt the psychiatrist’s argument that, as a matter of law, a psychiatrist's statutory duty to bring to the exercise of his profession a reasonable degree of care and skill could never be violated by a failure to involuntarily commit a patient. The court further declined to require an element of control over the patient as an essential element of a medical malpractice case arising from a suicide. However, whether the standard of care was breached and, if so, whether the breach proximately caused the suicide attempt in this case was a question of fact for the jury.

 

See: Peterson v. Reeves, 2012 WL 1072202 (Ga.App.  Mar 30, 2012) (not designated for publication). 

 

 

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