The short answer is yes, however, suicide claims are very difficult to pursue in Michigan – as demonstrated in the case discussed below.
The Michigan Court of Appeals held the trial court erred in denying summary disposition to a psychiatrist when the deceased’s family couldn’t demonstrate that but for the doctor’s actions, the deceased wouldn’t have committed suicide. The Court considered this question in 2016 in the case of Weatherly v. Bagga, No. 324566, 2016 Mich. App. LEXIS 415 (Mich. App. Mar. 3, 2016).
Gerald Weatherly had suffered for a long time from a disabling and painful chronic condition. He was treated with several medications including Fentanyl patches for this condition.
In the early morning hours of March 18, 2010, the police were called to Weatherly’s home after his wife reported that he was out of control and had assaulted their 20-year-old son. The son also reported that Weatherly had threatened suicide. Weatherly was not responsive to questioning from EMT on the scene. Upon arrival at the hospital, doctors found he had four fentanyl patches attached to his skin, an amount consistent with a suicide attempt.
The admitting physician requested consultation with a pain management specialist. He also requested a consultation with a psychiatrist, Dr. Jaswant Bagga. The pain management specialist saw Weatherly on March 19th at 6pm. His report noted that Weatherly had presented to the hospital “with overdose on narcotics,” was depressed, and had been speaking of suicide with his family. He recommended medication changes and also requested that Dr. Bagga see the patient for suicidal ideation and depression.
Dr. Bagga saw Weatherly the next day at about 2:20 p.m. In his brief note, he said that Weatherly as “using suicidal statements with doctors . . . to try and get more pain meds.” He diagnosed him with “mood disorder secondary to pain/withdrawal/side effects of pain medications.”
Dr. Bagga prescribed an antidepressant and a sleep aid. Weatherly committed suicide a few days later.
The Family Sues the Psychiatrist
The family of Gerald Weatherly alleged that Dr. Bagga failed to conduct a reasonable assessment and simply directed that he see him in a couple of weeks as an outpatient. The doctor testified that he intended to follow up and see Weatherly on March 22nd, but before doing so, he learned that Weatherly had already been discharged. Six days after his discharge, he committed suicide.
The Weatherly family presented the testimony of two psychiatrists who testified that Dr. Bagga’s examination and treatment of Weatherly fell below the standard of care. One of the experts also opined as to causation. Dr. Bagga filed a motion for summary disposition arguing that the family failed to produce evidence sufficient to create a question of fact as to causation.
The trial court denied summary disposition, concluding that the opinion of the Weatherly family’s expert was enough to establish the required causal link. On appeal, Dr. Bagga asserted that the trial court erred in denying his motion for summary disposition.
The Elements of a Negligence Claim
In a medical malpractice claim, a plaintiff must establish these four elements:
The Court of Appeals explained that the cause-in-fact element requires a plaintiff show that “but for” the defendant’s actions, the plaintiff’s injury wouldn’t have occurred, while the legal cause or “proximate cause” involves the examination of foreseeable consequences, and whether a defendant should be held legally responsible for such consequences.
The Court of Appeals explained that although a plaintiff need not prove that an act or omission was the cause of his injuries, he must introduce evidence that permits the jury to conclude that the act or omission was a cause.
Given the lack of evidence as to what transpired in the six days between Weatherly’s release and his suicide, the Court found that a basis to find cause in fact hadn’t been shown. In other words, there wasn’t a sufficient factual basis to conclude that had the doctor acted differently, Weatherly’s death after release would have been avoided.
Although Weatherly family’s expert opined that but for Dr. Bagga’s negligence Weatherly wouldn’t have committed suicide when he did, his opinion was stated in conclusory fashion. He didn’t offer any basis in fact, or in medical research, to support his conclusion.
Finally, the Court of Appeals acknowledged that such a causal link between alleged medical negligence and suicide could be demonstrated, but in this case, it wasn’t.
Although the Court of Appeals sided with the defense, there may be instances where a psychiatrist could be held liable for a patient’s suicide. The Buchanan Firm has evaluated many claims involving suicide, and can consult with qualified experts to find answers.
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