Psychiatrist's Negligence not Enough to Order Compensation to Patient's Family

A West Virginia jury found that while a psychiatrist deviated from the accepted standard of care due to his patient, the family of the patient was not entitled to compensation for the patient's suicide.

The family members of John Walker filed a medical malpractice lawsuit against psychiatrist, Dr. Mark Hughes, claiming that Hughes was negligent for not hospitalizing Walker before he committed suicide. Prior to shooting himself in the head, Walker had visited Hughes' office 17 hours before his death.

During the trial, Hughes stated that Walker had an extensive history of depression and also suffered from bi-polar disorder. Walker had been Hughes' patient for six years and Hughes testified that during this time, Walker had talked about killing himself and others numerous time, but never followed through on his threats.

During the trial, Dr. Hughes' defense attorney, Tyler Smith, argued, "Dr. Hughes spent 14 years in training and has seen thousands of patients. The only thing they don't give you is a crystal ball. It's not predictable. Anybody who has dealt with mental illness or lived with mental illness knows what these people are capable of. We don't know what set him off after he left the doctor's office. We'll never know."

After hearing all of the testimony and evidence, the jury deliberated for several hours. The jury's verdict found that Dr. Hughes' deviation from the standard of care did not substantially increase the cause of Walker's suicide.

Specific testimony by Walker's Wife, Gail, helped the jury reach this decision. In her journals, Gail documented that Walker was reluctant to take his medication and that he did not desire to be hospitalized. She also wrote that her husband frequently expressed thoughts of killing himself.

While the jury did express its willingness to acknowledge a breach of duty in the verdict, it was not compelled to award personal injury damages based on this breach of duty. The jury's verdict also indicated that it was inclined to believe that Walker's past mental history made him especially susceptible to suicide attempts and that culpability was not to the extent that Hughes was responsible for monetary damages.

By handing down this particular verdict, the jury struck a delicate balance of preserving the notion of the duty of care that physicians owe to their patients, while rejecting the notion of attenuated liability.


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