Although more complicated than the injuries associated with medical malpractice, mental health malpractice is a quickly growing field of malpractice law. Mental health practice generally occurs when a mental health practitioner disregards or breaches the proper standard of care that they are supposed to render for their clients. This can take many forms and involve many different types of conduct.
The majority of mental malpractice cases do not stem from unforeseeable problems, but rather from situations that could have been avoided if only they were recognized and treated properly by a mental health provider.
The following are the most commonly associated claims in successful mental health malpractice cases:
- Sexual impropriety;
- Incorrect treatment;
- Breach of confidentiality or privacy;
- Fee collection;
- Improper diagnosis of mental health problem;
- Defamation or slander;
- Suicide of patient; and/or
- Improper administration of prescription drugs.
Keep in mind that these claims are often applied to different types of mental health professionals. For example, a therapist with a PhD is not able to prescribe medication, instead a patient must go to a psychiatrist who is an MD.
If the claim is against a physician, then it is likely that the actions of the psychiatrist will be heavily scrutinized as medical professionals are held to a higher standard of care than a non-medical professional.
Like other forms of malpractice, mental health malpractice is usually classified as a type of negligence. In order to prove mental health malpractice using negligence principles, certain elements must be proven in court to hold the practitioner liable. These elements are:
- Duty to the Plaintiff: The court must prove that the mental health professional owed a duty of care to the injured party. In most cases, this duty is simply the mental health professional’s duty to provide safe health care according to industry standards, or according to the capabilities of a professional with similar background and training
- Breach of Duty to the Plaintiff: The court must then prove that the professional breached this duty of care to the client. An example of this is where the mental health professional makes an error in diagnosing the client’s condition.
- Causation: The court must also show that the professional’s conduct was the actual, direct cause of the person’s injuries
- Injury or Damages: It must be shown that the breach resulted in measurable injury or damages, such as a physical injury or mental complications
If the court is able to prove these elements, the professional will likely be found liable for mental health malpractice. Failure to prove any of the elements will mean that the professional is not liable for malpractice.
The same defenses for a medical malpractice case often work for mental health malpractice as well. The most common defenses are:
- Statute of Limitations: Statute of limitations still apply in mental health cases. The time limit to file a malpractice case is typically 1-7 years, but they differ between states. There is some discussion about raising the statute of limitations in cases involving children, but nothing concrete has come from it.
- No Duty: This typically means that the doctor is not liable because the person claiming malpractice was not the doctor’s patient. Although the doctor typically does not have duty to people who are not patients, the exception is if the patient is dangerous to a specific person or persons.
- No Injury: In order for a plaintiff to sue in court, the plaintiff must have suffered a wrong at the hands of the defendant. If the patient is no worse off than when he or she walked into the doctor’s office, the patient cannot bring a claim.
- Patient Negligence: Used if the patient failed to disclose all of their medical history or failed to follow on the doctor’s advice. The doctor cannot be liable because it was the patient who caused his or her own injuries.
In some cases, the patient is dangerous to others. Mental health providers may feel they are in a difficult position because the provider has a duty to keep the patient’s information confidential.
However, most states place a duty to warn victims on mental health providers. The duty to warn is the provider’s duty to provide warnings if their patient is seeking to harm another person. If a patient harms or kills a victim, the provider may sometimes be liable. The doctor-patient privilege would not be a defense if the mental health provider had a duty to warn or protect the victim.
Most states have a duty to warn. However, the following states do NOT place a duty to warn on mental health providers:
- North Carolina; and
- North Dakota.
If you have suffered from injuries as a result of mental health visits, or have been accused of mental health malpractice, the advice and counsel of a personal injury attorney can be extremely helpful. In order to determine the strength of the claim, and the proper legal recourse, the right personal injury attorney can make this process a successful one.