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Is a Georgia Doctor Liable for Failing to Properly Diagnose a Suicidal Patient?

Mental illness is a serious problem for many Georgia residents. Tragically, many people do not get the care they need until it is too late. In some cases, mental health care providers are negligent in failing to take immediate action to prevent a victim from harming him or herself.

Everson v. Phoebe Sumter Medical Center

The Georgia Court of Appeals recently addressed a wrongful death lawsuit brought by the family of a Georgia man who died as a result of his untreated mental illness. The lawsuit specifically accused the hospital and psychiatrist who saw the victim a few days before his death with failing to properly diagnose his condition and take appropriate action.

According to court records, the victim was a young lawyer. His mother had come to Georgia to help him move back to Connecticut. The victim had been under psychiatric care for some time due to depression and anxiety.

The victim’s mother said her son had woken her in the middle of the night on several occasions, speaking in a “rambling, accelerated manner.” After one such incident, the mother called the victim’s father, who also happened to be a doctor. The father then contacted a local hospital–the co-defendant in this case–which advised him to have the mother bring the victim to the emergency room.

The mother did so. A physician–the other co-defendant–working under contract with the hospital examined the victim. Although the victim said he was hallucinating and heard voices “rambling inside his head, the doctor discharged him with a diagnosis of “obsessive compulsive disorder.” A hospital nurse then scheduled a follow-up appointment at a nearby mental health faciility.

Two days later, the victim’s father arrived in Georgia. He decided to take his son to another hospital where he had professional and personal connections. During the car ride, the son–described by the father as in a “totally psychotic state”–got out of the vehicle while it was still moving. Subsequently, the victim ran directly into highway traffic, where he was struck and killed by a passing vehicle.

The parents’ lawsuit alleged the hospital and doctor were negligent in failing to order an immediate psychiatric evaluation when their son first presented in the emergency room. A trial judge dismissed the hospital as a defendant but ruled the case could proceed against the doctor. The Georgia Court of Appeals affirmed both decisions.

With respect to the doctor, he maintained that under Georgia law, he could only be held liable for “gross negligence” while providing “emergency medical care,” as opposed to the ordinary negligence standard applicable to most malpractice claims. But the Court of Appeals said it was not clear, at this stage of the case, whether the doctor’s treatment fell within the legal scope of “emergency” care.

The mere fact the doctor examined the victim in the emergency room was not, by itself, conclusive. The appeals court noted the triage nurse classified the victim in the “least critical” category of patients requiring care that night. Evidence submitted to the trial court indicated the victim was “stable” at the time of his exam. The Court of Appeals said it was up to a jury to decide whether this still constituted “emergency” care.

The Court also rejected the doctor’s argument that the parents could not establish “causation.” That is, there was no direct link between his failure to properly diagnose the victim and his death two days later. Again, this an issue a jury will have to decide. “Under some circumstances,” the appeals court observed, “a mentally-ill patient’s suicide can be a reasonably foreseeable consequence of a medical provider’s negligent conduct, even if the death occurs well after the negligent act.”