Georgia Appeals Court Rules Mental Health Privilege Survives Suicide of Patient

There are certain types of records that are considered inadmissible in Georgia personal injury cases. For example, there is the well-known attorney-client privilege. There is also a mental health privilege. This generally protects any communications between a patient and his or her psychologist or other mental health care professional.

Advantage Behavioral Health Systems v. Cleveland

A recent decision from the Georgia Court of Appeals, Advantage Behavioral Health Systems v. Cleveland, illustrates the broad scope of the mental health privilege. This tragic case involves the suicide of a young man. The victim went to a hospital emergency room in Athens, Georgia, in March 2016, telling doctors he had a “history of suicidal thoughts, bipolar disorder, severe depression, hallucinations, and alcohol use disorder,” according to court records.

The emergency room staff decided to involuntarily commit the victim to a mental health facility, which is operated by the defendant in this case. The defendant treated the victim for two days before releasing him. A few hours after his discharge, the victim committed suicide.

The victim’s parents subsequently filed a wrongful death lawsuit against the defendant. The lawsuit basically alleges the defendant’s staff was negligent in evaluating and releasing their son given the known risk that he would commit suicide.

The defense asked the trial judge to issue a broad protective order, effectively declaring any “communications between [the victim] and mental health care providers and communications between the providers themselves” were inadmissible at trial under Georgia’s mental health privilege. The trial judge agreed that some of the medical records requested by the parents were subject to the privilege, but that the defendant lacked legal standing to actually assert the privilege.

The Court of Appeals disagreed on the latter point. It held that under existing Georgia case law, the mental health privilege was a “neatly absolute one.” The privilege could only be waived by the patient. Obviously that was impossible in this case, as the patient was dead, and there was no evidence suggesting he waived privilege before his suicide. That did not affect the validity of the privilege. Oddly enough, this led the appeals court to conclude had “standing” to invoke the privilege on behalf of the victim.

The Court of Appeals explained that to rule otherwise–i.e., forbidding mental health facilities from asserting privilege absent a patient’s waiver–would “contravene the privilege’s purpose of encouraging free communications between patients and mental health providers.” Ultimately, the Georgia legislature decided such communications warranted broad protections were warranted, even if it might prevent a court from considering relevant evidence of a mental health care provider’s negligence.

That said, the Court of Appeals noted the privilege does not apply to all records held my a mental health care provider. The trial judge in this case actually held that several documents were not subject to the privilege, such as those that merely established the victim had received psychiatric treatment or participated in certain activities while at the defendant’s facility.