Summary Judgment Affirmed in the Second Circuit in a High Exposure Case Involving a Doctor’s Suicide

Summary Judgment Affirmed in the Second Circuit in a High Exposure Case Involving a Doctor’s Suicide

Senior Trial Partner Michael A. Sonkin, Partner and Head of Appeals Barbara D. Goldberg, and Partner Amy E. Korn obtained an affirmance of our summary judgment motion dismissing our client from a case involving suicide.

Briefly, the claim involved the suicide of an addiction medicine physician. The decedent physician, who had a long history of depression and post-traumatic stress disorder, began treating with our client anesthesiologist for ketamine infusions, which have shown some success in treating severe depression that is refractory to other forms of treatment. Most relevant to the case, the decedent sought and received treatment from our client defendant doctor after experiencing feelings of depression and suicidal ideations, to the point where he began writing prescriptions and transfer notes for some of his patients.  He was treated with a Ketamine booster on that date without complication before he committed suicide three days later. Of note, he reported that the suicidal ideations had abated by the end of the visit and our client, after carefully evaluating and observing him during the course of their session, believed that he was not at risk of harming himself.

 Among other things, the plaintiff alleged that our client departed from the standard of care by not contacting the decedent’s treating psychiatrist, by not creating and implementing a “safety plan,” and by not contacting the authorities.

MCB moved for summary judgment and argued that our client doctor had no duty to communicate with the decedent’s treating psychiatrist as the patient had prohibited such communications and there was no heightened urgency to do so that would have permitted violating the decedent’s HIPAA privacy rights. In its decision, the District Court agreed with the defense position and concluded that there was no evidence to contradict our defendant doctor’s assessment that there was no imminent threat of harm present and no basis to violate the HIPAA regulations prohibiting sharing of protected health information.  Even if such communication had occurred, the Court noted in its decision that plaintiff’s liability expert had conceded at his deposition that it was “unknowable” whether such communication would have prevented the suicide.  Given the absence of an opinion to a reasonable degree of medical certainty that such communication would have averted the decedent’s death, the Court concluded that plaintiff could not demonstrate the necessary element of causation. 

On plaintiff’s appeal, the United States Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit affirmed the Judgment dismissing the action. In pertinent part, the Court found that the District Court properly granted summary judgment in favor of our defendant doctor and his practice because plaintiff “failed to put forward sufficient evidence, in the form of expert testimony or otherwise, to establish causation with respect to [our defendant doctor’s] alleged failure to consult with decedent’s treating psychiatrist, develop a safety plan, or contact authorities.”  Since the Court found that plaintiff had failed to raise issues of fact as to proximate causation, the Court found it unnecessary to address our alternative ground for affirmance, that our defendant doctor’s evaluation of the decedent, including his determination that the decedent was no longer suicidal at the end of their session, conformed to the standard of care.