Wrongful Death -- Doctor Failed To Hospitalize Suicidal Patient -- Didn't Check Records -- Suicide -- $8.1 Million Verdict

February 26, 2001

Medical Malpractice

Wrongful Death -- Doctor Failed To Hospitalize Suicidal Patient -- Didn't Check Records -- Suicide -- $8.1 Million Verdict

Brief Statement of Claim: This was a medical malpractice claim for wrongful death brought by the estate of a 56-year-old IBM executive who committed suicide 12 days after being referred to the defendant psychiatrist through his managed care company.

The decedent had no prior psychiatric history but had become depressed after learning of additional restructuring and possible layoffs planned at the company.

On Nov. 6, 1997, he had gone to Northeast Medical Center in Cabarrus County, fearing a heart attack after collapsing at home. Two doctors there, an internist and a psychiatrist, recognized his serious mental condition and arranged for his transfer for in-patient care to Presbyterian Hospital in Charlotte on Nov. 8.

The defendant psychiatrist discharged the patient from Presbyterian without seeing him and without obtaining information as to how he had been sent there or why his managed care company had approved his emergency admission on a weekend.

The patient was seen in the doctor's office on Nov. 10, at which time the doctor prescribed Prozac and a self-help book. Family members (the wife and sister) testified that they accompanied the patient and informed the psychiatrist that his patient had been making out a will and talking of death the previous day. The defendant denied that he was given this information, but conceded that he had been told this, he would have been obligated to hospitalize the man for his own safety.

The patient was seen again on Nov. 17, for a 15-minute medication appointment, at which time he told the doctor of his continuing inability to sleep. Following this visit, the patient deteriorated markedly and became psychotic.

Calls from the wife were not returned by the doctor, whose staff informed the wife that the doctor would not speak to her because she was not the patient, according to the plaintiffs' counsel.

The patient's brother drove up from Atlanta in response to the wife's pleas. He called the office repeatedly on the morning of Nov. 20, telling the staff that his brother was psychotic and needed to be seen. He was finally given an appointment for 2:45 that afternoon.

The patient shot himself at 2 p.m., just before they were to leave home for the appointment.

In addition to failing to admit the patient to Presbyterian and failing to act on the information that the patient was writing a will, contentions of negligence included the defendant's failure to obtain the patient's history from Northeast Medical Center (where it was documented that the patient was psychotic and suicidal), failure to return phone calls, inadequate suicide risk assessment (defendant never asked if there were guns in the home), and failure of the office staff to respond appropriately to the brother's calls just hours before the suicide.

The decedent was survived by his wife and two adult daughters.

Principal Injuries (in order of severity): Wrongful death

Special Damages: Funeral expenses of $8,443; loss of future net income, $446,851, and loss of services, $196,443

Tried or settled: Tried

County where tried or settled: Mecklenburg

Case Name and number: Mary Ann Barnes as Administratrix of the Estate of James Randall Barnes v. Francis L. Daly III, M.D., and University Psychiatric Associates (99 CvS 9225)

Date Concluded: Feb. 8, 2001

Name of Judge: Timothy Patti

Amount: $8.1 million

Insurance Carrier: PRMS (Professional Risk Management Services) for Legion Insurance Co.

Expert Witnesses and areas of expertise: For plaintiff: James Bellard, M.D., Pleas Geyer, M.D., Thomas G. Gutheil, M.D., Harvey Resnick, M.D.; J. Finley Lee, Ph.D., (economist); for defendants: Brian Farah, M.D., John Humphrey, M.D., Douglas Jacobs, M.D., and Kenneth Ullman, M.D. (all psychiatrists)

(all psychiatrists);

Attorneys for plaintiffs: Wade E. Byrd, Fayetteville, and Sally A. Lawing, Greensboro, of the Law Offices of Wade E. Byrd

Other Useful Info: See article, Feb. 19 Lawyers Weekly