Court ruling widens grounds for malpractice suits involving patient suicide


A Florida Supreme Court ruling creates a broader legal space in which to sue doctors for malpractice when a patient commits suicide.

The unanimous court decision concerns the legal duty a doctor has to a depressed individual seeking outpatient care, reports Politico. Under Florida statutes, physicians have a bright-line legal duty to prevent suicide in an inpatient setting, but that statute does not cover “unforeseeable” suicides committed by patients who are not under a physician’s care at the time.

The case triggering the ruling came about when a patient of Joseph S. Chirillo, Jr., M.D., called the office and told a medical assistant she had stopped taking her prescribed antidepressant due to unpleasant side effects. The physician prescribed a new antidepressant, told the patient to pick up samples and a prescription, and referred the patient to a gastroenterologist. A day later, the patient hanged herself, and the patient’s husband brought a malpractice suit against Chirillo.

When a lower court rejected the case because physicians have no duty to prevent a mentally ill outpatient’s unforeseeable suicide, the Florida Supreme Court found on appeal that the physician still had a duty to deliver an “applicable standard of care,” and reversed the summary judgment on the case.

Depression care can present difficulties for primary care practices, and the cost of treatment can cause physicians to take a different view of the appropriate course of care than patients, per previous reporting by FiercePracticeManagement. The Florida case now appears to hinge on whether or not the court will find the physician’s failure to request his patient make an appointment represents a deviation from an appropriate standard of care, which arguably means the expected standard of care could change due to new malpractice trends. Along these lines, Politico notes that the decision, though technical, could “influence how patients are treated for depression.”