Top 25 Medical Malpractice Cases of a 25 Year Career – Attempted Suicide
Medical malpractice cases are very complex.
In this series of articles BC and Alberta personal injury and medical malpractice lawyer Angela Price-Stephens describes her top 25 notable medical malpractice cases of her 25-year career to date. Her selection of cases is a representation of the breadth of her experience, the complexity of cases, the twists and turns in the evidence and the dramatic benefit to her clients and their respective families by successfully pursing their claim with Angela and her team.
Angela has litigated cases across Canada and England and Wales. The names and distinguishing details of the cases referred to in this series of articles have been changed to protect the client. In all cases of settlement for medical malpractice the lawyers for the defendant healthcare providers insist on a confidentiality clause in which the existence of a settlement (payout of money to the former patient, irrespective of whether an admission of liability was made) must remain a secret.
In this fifth article we review the tragic case of Erin who has a chronic history of schizophrenia. Erin was in her late 20s and worked as a waitress. Erin’s illness was generally well managed, and she was high functioning and independent. Triggered by the emotional upset of a breakup with her long-time partner, Erin failed to maintain her usual regime of self-care. Erin’s behavior changed. She started to drop out of activities and isolate herself. Her work reliability suffered. Her mood dropped, her thoughts started to race, and she ruminated on why the relationship had ended. Within a few months she was self-harming, believing that there was something alive, inside her arm and she needed to cut it out. She expressed an intention to take her life, that she needed to take her life, to protect her family. It was clear to her family that she had stopped taking her medication.
Two family members took Erin to the local emergency department. While one family member waited with Erin, the other spoke with the nurse who was triaging the psychiatric patients. The family member explained the paranoia and Erin’s expressed intent to kill herself. The nurse received Erin into her care., but there was no formal admission at that point. The family members, believing Erin to be safe, left the hospital to move the car which was illegally parked. By the time they returned, about 15 minutes later, Erin was nowhere to be found. Driven by delusions and the need to kill herself to protect her family she had run from the hospital and jumped from a near-by bridge.
The fall did not kill Erin. She sustained life changing injuries including a brain injury, a fracture to several vertebrae, three fractured limbs and multiple cuts and internal bruising. These injuries would ultimately prevent her from returning to work and living independently.
The Prejudice of Mental Illness
One of the more challenging and frustrating aspects of this case was the pervasive but erroneous assumption that an individual who has a diagnosis such as schizophrenia could not be expected to work, regardless of the physical injuries sustained. This conveniently overlooked the fact that Erin had worked consistently for almost 10 years, since graduating high school and lived independently and without support for most of that time.
Standard of Care for a Patient in Emergency
The issue of what the standard of care was for a patient in the emergency department, but who had not yet been formally admitted into the hospital, was the central issue. Erin had not been sectioned under the Mental Health Act, and she was free to leave. However, given the information the family member had provided to the nurse it was argued that it was reasonably foreseeable that Erin would try to injure herself. The nurse had left Erin alone to advise the psychiatrist on call in the emergency room of the risk of suicide, without protecting the patient. Through careful questioning it was established that the nurse did not need to leave the at-risk patient alone; she was able to call or page the consultant. There was also an option to take Erin through into an observation area where other nurses and staff were available to provide supervision. The nurse admitted that she had not considered this, although it was an option available to her that night.
Using exceptionally experienced psychiatric experts, Angela was able to negotiate a settlement of this difficult claim. As usual for these cases, liability was never admitted. However, the risk of a finding of liability was sufficient to apply pressure to settle. The dramatic nature of both the events and the injuries was also likely an additional influence. This was especially as it was argued that the patient had presented for medical help and intervention at a time when she was most vulnerable and “not herself”. It would not have required much additional effort to take all reasonable steps to provide a safe environment.
Erin received rehabilitation for her physical injuries for many months. With proper care and administration of her usual medication, Erin’s symptomatic episode was resolved in a fraction of the time. She has very little recollection of the events.
The settlement provided funds for her future care and gave Erin and her family peace of mind that her future was financially secure.
This was one of several cases which encouraged Angela to engage in community work for mental health issues, including training in suicide first aid, hundreds of hours with the distress/crisis lines and, more recently, she has been appointed to the Board of Directors of the Canadian Mental Health Association.
Angela Price-Stephens is an English and Canadian lawyer who focuses on serious personal injury arising from the negligence of others, mostly health care professionals. Of her 25-year career approximately half of that time has been spent defending heath authorities, doctors and other healthcare professionals. That experience is now used exclusively for the benefit of injured patients.
For more information on this article, or for a confidential discussion of your claim, contact Angela Price-Stephens at 250 869 1124, or send her a confidential email at firstname.lastname@example.org.