Sounds outrageous, doesn’t it? A guy kills his mother and then the Georgia Supreme Court says he has a right to sue his psychiatrist for inappropriate psychiatric treatment that gave rise to the death of his mother.
It is outrageous only if you know nothing about either law or medicine.
Psychiatrists are trained to help people who have mental illness (duh). Some psychiatrists are good. Some are bad. Some good psychiatrists will, from time to time, fall below the standard of care and cause harm to a patient.
There are a fair number of cases every year in which the family of a suicide victim will claim that a psychiatrist or other mental health professional negligently cared for the decedent. Some think that those cases should be barred, but Tennessee law allows a jury to determine whether recovery is appropriate so long as there is expert proof supporting the claim of both negligent treatment and causation. See, e.g. White v. Lawrence, 975 S.W.2d 525 (Tenn. 1998). Bruscato v. O’Brien, S11G0660 (Sept. 12, 2011), is unusual in that the patient claims that his psychiatrist’s negligence (abruptly stopping Zyprexa) resulted in him de-compensate to the point of killing his mother. Note that Bruscato has been charged, but not yet convicted, of murder.
The defense argued that Bruscato’s claim should be barred as a matter of law – that he should not be allowed to profit from his mother’s death. That argument has some emotional appeal to it, but little other appeal. As the Georgia Supreme Court ruled, " Bruscato’s lawsuit is not wholly related to his act of murder, and it is not wholly designed to profit from that act. To the contrary, his lawsuit relates to the allegedly improper medical treatment he received from O’Brien and seeks damages for the suffering it caused to him. In this sense, Bruscato is not seeking to profit from the murder
of his mother, he is seeking damages to be made whole from the allegedly improper treatment he received from O’Brien."
Makes sense to me.
So, will Bruscato win his case against Dr. O’Brien? I must confess that it appears like a tough case to me. As explained in the summary of facts set forth in the opinion, Bruscato is, shall we say, not the most sympathetic plaintiff. (One might argue that his plight deserves the most sympathy – he truly appears to be a very sick man. But the plaintiff’s lawyer here has a hard row to hoe to educate a jury on this man’s difficulties).
That being said, if in fact it is determined that he was "insane" at the time of the murder and negligence and causation is established by the requisite expert proof, a jury should be permitted to conclude that inappropriate health care caused this foreseeable consequence. Psychiatrists should not avoid accountability for negligent acts just because their patients are severely mentally ill. Likewise, it is completely foreseeable that some mentally ill people will harm or kill others.