Florida Supreme Court Addresses Duty Owed to a Patient by Physician or Psychotherapist in Wrongful Death Case

The Florida Supreme Court recently ruled on an issue in conflict between two District Courts of Appeal in Chirillo v. Granicz (No. SC14-898). Both district courts weighed which legal duty should be applied in wrongful death cases when a patient commits suicide while under the care of a physician or psychotherapist. In Florida, the first stage of an appeal after a circuit court trial is one of five district court of appeals. If these courts rule differently on an issue, it is up to the Supreme Court to determine which interpretation of the law is correct.

In Chirillo, the deceased patient changed medication from one antidepressant to another. The deceased patient stopped the new medication and alerted her primary care physician that she did so because of side effects like not sleeping well and gastrointestinal problems. The deceased reported to the office she was not “feeling right,” and her medication was changed to Lexapro. However, no other appointment was made with the primary care physician. After the patient committed suicide, the estate filed suit against the primary care physician, alleging he was responsible for her death. In this case, the Supreme Court reviewed the Second District Court of Appeal’s reversal of the trial court’s summary judgment in favor of the defendant physician. The trial court had determined a primary care physician did not owe a duty to the deceased patient just because he had knowledge of her depression and changed her medication. The appellate court ruled that the question was whether or not the physician exercised reasonable care in the treatment of the patient. Based on this assessment, the Court of Appeal felt summary judgment was improper because the deceased person’s estate’s expert witness testimony created a genuine issue of material fact regarding whether that duty was breached.

The Florida Supreme Court ultimately agreed with this interpretation. In McCain v. Florida Power Corp., 593 So. 2d 500 (Fla. 1992), the Supreme Court looked at how the foreseeability of an injury affects questions of duty and proximate cause. Applying this precedent, the Supreme Court disagreed with the First District’s interpretation of McCain. The First District felt the primary question was whether or not a duty was owed when a patient, provided care in an outpatient setting, committed suicide. The Supreme Court disagreed with the First District’s determination that the physician had no duty to prevent the suicide. The Supreme Court pointed out that while one duty may not exist, other duties like reasonable care are in place. While it is possible for a trial court to make a legal determination that proximate cause does not exist, questions of proximate cause are typically handled by the jury. The Supreme Court agreed with the Second District’s ruling that the expert witness’ opinion created a question of material fact to be left for the jury to decide. The Supreme Court affirmed the appellate decision, formally disapproving the decision of the First District. The deceased person’s estate was allowed to proceed toward trial.

Florida wrongful death lawsuits are emotionally strenuous and can be legally challenging. The experienced Florida attorneys at Donaldson & Weston have the knowledge you need to assist you with your case. Call today at 772-266-5555 or 561-299-3999 for a free, confidential consultation.

More Blog Posts:

Florida District Court of Appeal Reviews Drunk Driver Motorcycle Accident Case, South Florida Injury Lawyer Blog, August 4, 2016

Wrongful Death Appeal Discusses Statutory Requirements for Expert Witnesses in Florida, South Florida Injury Lawyer Blog, July 13, 2016