It goes without saying that a drunk driver can be held liable in a civil lawsuit for injuring someone while on the road. In some cases, Georgia law even makes it possible for an accident victim to sue a bar or restaurant for serving the drunk driver. But what about a mental health professional who treated the drunk driver? Can they also be held responsible for failing to take action to prevent their patient from getting behind the wheel?
Stanley v. Garrett
The Georgia Court of Appeals addressed these questions in a recent decision, Stanley v. Garrett. This case involved a man named Fettig, who had a history of alcoholism and depression. The defendant in this case was Fettig’s psychiatrist.
The defendant prescribed anti-anxiety medication to Fettig to help him with the process of withdrawing from alcohol use. Initially, it worked. According to court records, Fettig remained sober for approximately four months after he started seeing the defendant. But Fettig suffered a relapse while on a business trip. Fettig immediately returned home to Atlanta and scheduled a session with the defendant.
On the day in question, Fettig attended an AA meeting. Unfortunately, after the meeting ended he went to a nearby tavern and drank five beers. Fettig then drove to the defendant’s office for his session. Once the session ended, the defendant resumed drinking. He visited two more restaurants and consumed several more drinks before getting back on the road and colliding with another vehicle, killing its driver. Police later determined that Fettig’s blood-alcohol content was 0.192%, more than twice the legal limit in Georgia.
The widow of the driver who was killed subsequently sued the defendant. She alleged the defendant was negligent in treating Fettig, and that negligence led to her husband’s death. A trial court subsequently dismissed the plaintiff’s lawsuit at the summary judgment stage, however, and the Court of Appeals affirmed that ruling.
As the Court of Appeals explained, the plaintiff could not prove a claim for “ordinary negligence” against the defendant under these facts. Negligence requires the existence of some legal duty owed to the plaintiff (i.e., the victim) by the defendant. Here, the court said the defendant “had no duty to exercise control over Fettig to prevent him from harming others.” Indeed, as a general rule, an individual has “”no duty to exercise control over third persons to prevent them from harming others” unless a “special relationship” exists.
The court acknowledged that there are situations in which such a special relationship exists in a doctor-patient context. For example, if a mental hospital allows an involuntarily committed inpatient to leave and that patient subsequently kills someone, the hospital can be held liable. But here, Fettig was a voluntary outpatient, meaning the defendant had no legal authority to restrain or otherwise detain him.
The Court of Appeals further noted that the plaintiff had no legal standing to assert a claim against the defendant for his allegedly negligent treatment of Fettig’s alcoholism. Under Georgia law, only a patient can assert a medical malpractice claim, not a third party.