Every year, nearly 46,000 Americans die and another 1.2 million attempt to take their own lives, according to the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention. It’s not uncommon for loved ones to agonize for years about “what if” and what might be done differently – possibly blaming themselves or others for not seeing the signs or being more proactive in protecting the person from themselves. And most of the time, it’s a fruitless mental spiral because hindsight is 20/20 and of course you’d have intervened if you knew what was coming and had the power to stop it.
But what if an individual or organization was responsible for overseeing your loved one’s physical well-being and mental health and they managed to commit suicide anyway? What if red flags were missed? What if the people entrusted to care for your loved one – knowing their risk of self-harm – didn’t make absolutely sure they were safe?
In these cases, you may have grounds to sue for suicide. These third-party lawsuits assert that the doctor, hospital, or other organization owed your loved one a duty of care, breached that duty, and your loved one died as a result. As noted in a 2019 article published in FOCUS, The Journal of Lifelong Learning in Psychiatry, suicide is a top cause of liability against psychiatrists treating adult patients.
But are such cases medical malpractice or general negligence? The answer matters because, as our Palm Beach medical malpractice lawyers can explain, the proof burden and pre-suit requirements for medical negligence cases are more time-consuming, expensive, and tedious than what’s required to initiate a general negligence action. It has a shorter statute of limitations than injury cases (2 years instead of 4), though it’s the same for wrongful death cases. Also, the plaintiff is required to provide expert witness testimony at the outset of the case just to be allowed to proceed. Naturally, anyone named as a third-party defendant in a suicide liability lawsuit is going to argue the case is medical malpractice because that will make it tougher and more costly for the plaintiff.
But just because the defense says it’s medical malpractice doesn’t mean it is. Sometimes, it’s up to the courts to decide.
One such case was before Florida’s Fifth District Court of Appeal in 2021. According to court records in Lifestream Behavioral Center, Inc. v. John Allerton (as personal representative of the estate of John Zachary Allerton), the decedent was admitted to the defendant facility for treatment of mental illness. He was a known suicide risk and, his estate alleges, the behavioral facility should have had him under constant visual supervision. Because they did not, decedent was given unsupervised access to an unlocked bathroom, where he was later found hanging.
Plaintiff alleges this wrongful death was the direct and proximate result of the facility’s negligence.
The facility responded by saying the lawsuit should be dismissed because it was filed as a general negligence case, when in fact it should have been a medical malpractice claim. If this was a matter of medical negligence, then the plaintiff failed to meet several requirements for filing such a claim.
The trial court disagreed, finding the plaintiff’s claim sounded in general negligence rather than medical malpractice. The facility appealed, and the 5th DCA affirmed. The court pointed to the precedent set in the 1994 Florida Supreme Court case of J.B. v. Sacred Heart Hosp. of Pensacola, wherein justices held that if there’s any doubt if a claim is for ordinary negligence or medical malpractice, that ambiguity should be resolved in favor of the claimant. Here, the trial court made the correct call.
Contact the South Florida personal injury attorneys at Halberg & Fogg PLLC by calling toll-free at 1-877-425-2374. Serving West Palm Beach, Miami, Tampa, Orlando and Fort Myers/ Naples. There is no fee unless you win.
Lifestream Behavioral Center, Inc. v. Allerton, Sept. 24, 2021, Fla. 5th DCA
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