There are many different types of malpractice claims that an injured client can bring, which all depend on the type of harm done and the occupation of the party who committed the wrong. 

For example, a doctor who fails to treat their patient properly and as a result, ends up making the patient worse, could be sued for medical malpractice

A rapidly growing field of malpractice lawsuits stems from a category known as “mental health malpractice.” A mental health malpractice claim may arise when a mental health practitioner (e.g., a psychiatrist) treats their patient in a negligent manner or abuses the power that they have over them as a professional. 

Mental health malpractice claims can be very broad and thus may include many different types of issues or cover various sorts of misconduct. They are often difficult to prove and may not result in the highest damages awards.

To determine whether or not you have a viable claim for a mental health malpractice lawsuit, you should contact a personal injury attorney for further assistance. 

What are Some Examples of Mental Health Malpractice?

Although many claims for mental health malpractice are brought on an individual case basis, there are several common scenarios that show up more frequently than others in such cases. These include the following examples:

  • Misdiagnosing a patient (e.g., the mental health practitioner had another patient’s files when they diagnosed their current patient, which led to a misdiagnosis);
  • Providing incorrect treatment to a patient (this could stem from an initial misdiagnosis);
  • Negligent mishandling of a patient at a mental health institute;
  • Engaging in a sexual relationship or sexually abusing the patient;
  • Breaching the patient’s confidentiality (e.g., sharing patient files without their consent);
  • Verbally or physically abusing the patient; or
  • Failing to prevent the patient from committing suicide (especially if the mental health professional was aware of the patient’s intentions).

How Do You Prove Mental Health Malpractice?

As is the case with many malpractice lawsuits, mental health malpractice claims are proven by using a negligence standard. The patient (i.e., the plaintiff) must be able to prove the following elements:

  • The plaintiff must prove that there was a doctor-patient relationship between the parties. From the perspective of a general negligence claim, this helps to establish that the doctor owed a standard of care to the plaintiff that comports with the customary healthcare industry standards.
    • A patient may be able to prove this by showing medical bills, scheduling calendars, prescription receipts, or personal notes kept about each visit.
  • Next, the patient must be able to prove that the doctor did not meet the duty of care owed to the plaintiff or breached it in some way. For example, if a professional sexually abuses their patient, then this could lead to further psychological trauma and would not be considered an act that is appropriate under the customary industry standards.
    • Again, a patient may be able to prove this by providing personal accounts of what happened, keeping a journal of each visit, or, if possible, asking witnesses to provide any relevant statements.
  • The plaintiff must have experienced some sort of injury or harm, such as worsening mental conditions or physical injuries, that can be redressed by a concrete value amount. In other words, the damages done to the patient can be recovered by a specific dollar amount in a court of law.
    • This may be shown by additional medical treatment that was needed, the bills for that treatment, opinions of other medical professionals, and so on.
  • Finally, the patient must be able to prove that these injuries were directly caused by the professional’s failure to adhere to the proper duty of care for their patient.   
    • Unless it is apparently obvious like a bruise, this may be the hardest element for the patient to prove. This is why documents, such as receipts and personal records, are so important to keep.

If the patient is able to prove all of the above elements, then it is likely that the mental health practitioner will be held liable for mental health malpractice. In contrast, if the patient fails to prove all four elements, then the mental health practitioner will most likely not be held responsible for the patient’s injuries.

Can You Sue a Mental Health Practitioner for Their Patient’s Actions?

Until more recently, one area of the law that had been vaguely defined had to do with whether or not a mental health practitioner could be sued for their patient’s actions. This is because on one hand, the mental health professional had a duty to keep their patient’s information confidential. 

On the other, the mental health provider could be the only who knew about or had access to the information that the patient might pose a danger to others. 

In 1976, a California Supreme Court case entitled, Tarasoff v. Regents of the University of California, held that mental health providers do have a duty to protect individuals that may be at risk of bodily harm based on information learned from their patients.  

Since then, many jurisdictions have opted to adopt this ruling and it has been generally applied in almost all states that a mental health provider does have a duty to warn someone else if their patient seeks to harm them. This is especially true if the patient intends to kill the victim. In such cases, the doctor-patient confidentiality privilege will not be available to use a defense in court.

What Rights Do I Have as a Patient?

There are certain rights that patients have in a mental health facility. One of the primary rights that patients should know about is the right to refuse treatment. Regardless of whether the patient was committed to a mental health facility voluntarily or involuntarily, according to the law, a patient always has a right to refuse treatment. However, there may be some exceptions.

Another right that patients have is the right to be free from restraint (including sedation) and seclusion. Although certain scenarios may arise where they may be necessary, the general and widely employed practice is to not restrain or isolate patients who have mental conditions.

One final important right that patients have is the right to have their information and medical records kept private. Patients have the right to control who can view or access their information. A psychiatrist or a medical health facility cannot freely distribute the records on the patient to anyone, nor share it on a personal level.

Do I Need a Lawyer for a Mental Health Malpractice Case?

If you think you have been involved in an incident that could result in a mental health malpractice lawsuit, you should contact an experienced personal injury lawyer immediately. 

It is important to note, however, that not all personal injury lawyers will be able to take your case, but LegalMatch’s platform can help you find one who specializes in mental health malpractice lawsuits.

Alternatively, if you do not wish to bring a case, you may also file a complaint with a human rights officer who is located in your area, the ethics board that licensed your mental health practitioner, or with the mental health practitioner or facility’s human resources department. 

If you are not sure about which route to take, speaking with a lawyer can help make the decision easier because they will be able to explain the potential outcomes of each action taken.