The Michigan Court of Appeals held the trial court improperly denied summary disposition to a defendant when the plaintiff could not show that but for the psychiatrist’s actions, the decedent would not have committed suicide.
Gerald Weatherly committed suicide in 2010 after suffering from a painful long-term illness. Before his death, he was treated with a number of medications, including Fentanyl. On the morning of March 18, 2010, Mr. Weatherly’s wife called the police, indicating that he was distraught and had assaulted their son. The son told the police that Weatherly was threatening suicide. Weatherly did not respond to questioning from the paramedics and was subsequently taken to the hospital. There, it was noticed that Mr. Weatherly had four Fentanyl patches on his skin, an overdose that suggested a suicide attempt.
The hospital had Mr. Weatherly evaluated by a pain management specialist and a psychiatrist. The pain management specialist reported that Weatherly had overdosed on narcotics, had suffered from depression, and had suicidal thoughts. He suggested changes in Mr. Weatherly’s medication.
Dr. Jaswant Bagga, the psychiatrist, evaluated Weatherly the following day. He wrote a short note concluding that Weatherly was conveying suicidal statements to doctors to obtain more pain medication. He diagnosed him with a mood disorder “secondary to pain/withdrawal/side effects of pain medications,” and he prescribed an anti-depressant and a sleeping aid. Six days after being discharged from the hospital, Weatherly committed suicide.
The plaintiff alleged that Dr. Bagga did not adequately assess Mr. Weatherly. Before the trial court, the plaintiff presented the testimony of two psychiatrists who stated that Dr. Bagga’s treatment of Weatherly fell below the standard of care. Dr. Bagga testified that he planned to follow up and see Weatherly two days after the initial appointment, but he learned that Weatherly had already been released from the hospital. One expert opined as to a causal link between Dr. Bagga’s ineffective treatment and Mr. Weatherly’s suicide.
Dr. Bagga moved for summary disposition, arguing that the plaintiff failed to produce evidence sufficient to create a question of fact as to causation. The trial court denied the motion, concluding that one plaintiff expert testified that there was a causal link.
Dr. Bagga appealed, arguing that the trial court improperly denied his motion for summary disposition.
In agreeing with Dr. Bagga, the Michigan Court of Appeals first outlined the four elements necessary to prove a medical malpractice claim according to Michigan Supreme Court precedent: (1) the relevant standard of care, (2) a breach of the standard of care by the defendant, (3) injury, and (4) a causal link between the breach and the injury. The causation element requires the plaintiff to demonstrate two types of cause: (1) cause in fact, or that “but for” the defendant’s actions, the plaintiff’s injury would not have occurred; and (2) proximate cause, or that the defendant should have reasonably foreseen the injury that occurred.
The Michigan intermediate court has previously discussed the particular difficulty of determining the factors contributing to an individual’s suicide. In 2009, the court held in Teal v. Prasad that the causes of the decedent’s suicide were “speculative,” since there was little evidence “establishing [the decedent’s] mental state, thoughts, and suicidal tendencies” following his release from the hospital. There, the court concluded that the plaintiff failed to show that the defendant’s actions “triggered a causal chain leading to [the decedent’s] suicide.”
The appeals court concluded that Mr. Weatherly’s case was governed by Teal. Given the absence of evidence indicating what happened between Weatherly’s discharge from the hospital and his suicide, there was insufficient evidence to find cause in fact. Put differently, there was not a sufficient basis to find that had Dr. Bagga evaluated Mr. Weatherly differently, the suicide might not have occurred. Although the plaintiff’s expert testified as to a causal link, the expert offered no factual basis or medical research in support of his opinion.
For these reasons, the Michigan appeals court reversed the trial court’s ruling. It further remanded for an order granting Dr. Bagga’s motion for summary disposition.
Personal injury lawyer Kelly Neumann at the Neumann Law Group represents victims of accidents throughout Michigan from offices in Traverse City and Grand Rapids. Call us at (231) 463-0122 or at (616) 717-5666 for a free consultation.
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