Does a primary care physician have a duty of care in treating a depressed patient who commits suicide?

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MedicalLawyer

Recently, the Florida Supreme Court weighed in on whether a primary care physician could be found negligent in the suicide of a patient.  After Jacqueline Granicz’s death in 2008, her husband brought a wrongful death case against Dr.Chirillo. The 2nd District Court of Appeal ruled last year that the lawsuit against Chirillo could move forward, overturning a circuit judge’s ruling in the doctor’s favor. Attorney Scott Cole argued the physician, Joseph Chirrilo, should not be held liable in the 2008 death of a 55-year-old patient because case law has treated suicides differently than other medical conditions because it is a “unique, deliberate and intentional act that cannot be predicted.” “You are dealing with what is a penultimate gray area and that is the human mind,” Cole told the justices.  But Justice R. Fred Lewis pointed to scientific advances that have led to greater knowledge about the human mind and psychiatric conditions. He questioned the idea that a suicide cannot be foreseeable.

Granicz started taking the anti-depressant Effexor in 2005 but stopped taking it in 2008, court records show. She called Chirrilo’s office the day before she died and spoke to his medical staff, telling them she had not been feeling well since summer and that she had stopped taking the antidepressant.  The woman’s body was found the next day. Granicz’s husband sued the physician and his medical group, alleging Chirillio was negligent for failing to recognize that the patient was depressed, for failing to speak with her directly and for failing to conduct an evaluation before prescribing Lexapro. The trial court, in a summary judgment, ruled that “it is well settled in Florida law” that a “duty” is the minimum threshold requirement for a negligence action and dismissed the case. The appeals court reversed that decision which prompted Chirillo to take the issue to the Supreme Court. After hearing oral arguments, justices typically take months to rule in such cases.

Lewis and other justices repeatedly questioned Cole about distinctions he drew related to the ability of doctors to predict suicides. James Tilghman, an attorney for Granicz’s husband, Robert, argued the lawsuit against Chirillo should be allowed to move forward. “This is a, ‘You’ve got to treat your patient according to the standard of care’ (case),” Tilghman said. But Cole said Chirillo could not have predicted the suicide.

It will be interesting to read the opinion of Florida Supreme Court on this issue.

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