The New Hampshire Supreme Court was asked to decide whether a physician could be held liable for the suicide of a patient. After reviewing the facts alleged by the plaintiff
in the recent case of Estate of Maloney v. Badman, the Court held that the defendant could not be held liable in this particular instance.
Helene Maloney committed suicide on July 18, 2001 via an overdose of Percocet. Throughout her life she had suffered from Crohn’s disease, depression and suicidal ideation. The decedent saw a number of doctors including the defendant.
Dr. Badman saw the decedent approximately 9 times between 1999 and 2001. He prescribed her Percocet and Valium, but stopped prescribing medications to her in 2000. Dr. Badman was aware that the decedent was seeing a psychiatrist, had become severely depressed and was struggling with mood regulation. Dr. Badman was aware of the fact that the decedent was contemplating suicide if her illness became too much to bear, but that she did not have a plan to commit suicide.
The decedent’s husband sued Dr. Badman claiming that the Valium prescribed by Dr. Badman accelerated her depression and ultimately caused her suicide. Dr. Badman moved to dismiss the case, arguing that he had no duty of care to prevent the decedent’s suicide. This duty, in law, rests essentially on two classes of defendants, each of whom have a duty of custodial care, is in a position to know about suicidepotential, and fails to take measures to prevent suicide from occurring. Specifically, this duty has been imposed on: (1)institutions such as jails, hospitals and reform schools, having actual physical custody of and control over persons; and (2) persons or institutions such as mental hospitals, psychiatrists and other mental-health trained professionals, deemed to have a special training and expertise enabling them to detect mental illness and/or the potential for suicide, and which have the power or control necessary to prevent that suicide.
The trial court ruled in Dr. Badman’s favor and the Supreme Court affirmed this decision.
The Supreme Court held that, in Dr. Badman’s case, he had no reason to believe that the decedent would use the Percocet to commit suicide. The decedent did not express suicidal ideation when Dr. Badman last saw her in 2001. The decedent also failed to tell Dr. Badman that she attempted suicide 4 years earlier. The decedent’s family never informed Dr. Badman that the decedent was suicidal. In fact, in the week prior to her suicide, the decedent saw a mental health provider on four separate occasions and at no time was assessed to be suicidal.
In sum, the Supreme Court held that the plaintiff failed to show that Dr. Badman was aware of the decedent’s suicidal ideations or had sufficient control over the decedent, so that he could have prevented the suicide. For those reasons, therefore, the Supreme Court concluded that Dr. Badman should not be held liable for the decedent’s death.
Andrew J. Piela is a Director at Hamblett & Kerrigan, P.A. Mr. Piela concentrates his practice in civil litigation, family law, probate and land use litigation. You can reach Attorney Piela by e-mail at email@example.com.