By Gary D. Fox
Eight years ago Bob Granicz lost Jackie, his wife of 30 years, to suicide. Our medical malpractice case against the health care providers involved was thrown out of court by the trial judge, finding that Bob was not entitled to a jury. Last week, after six years of litigation, the Florida Supreme Court ruled in a landmark decision that victims like Bob and Jackie were entitled to have a jury decide their case.
Jackie had been suffering from depression for many years and was being treated by Dr. Joseph Chirillo. One day, she called Dr. Chirillo’s office and advised that she had stopped taking her antidepressant medication, was feeling bad, and was teary and emotional. These are all signs that should have led Dr. Chirillo to direct Jackie to come to his office for evaluation and treatment.
Rather than speak with her directly, Dr. Chirillo communicated through his nurse who gave Jackie a prescription for additional antidepressants and referred her to a gastroenterologist.
The next day, Bob drove to his home and found Jackie’s body. He immediately called 911 – the tape of that telephone call is one of the most dramatic pieces of evidence you can imagine.
We filed the lawsuit against Dr. Chirillo and his employer alleging that he should have recognized that Jackie was at risk for suicide and taken steps to treat her. The trial judge threw out our case on summary judgment, so we appealed to the intermediate appellate court in Florida, which ruled in our favor. The defendants then appealed the ruling to the Florida Supreme Court, where the case was orally argued in September of 2015.
The significance of the case, in part, is that it tells doctors that you cannot malpractice on patients suffering from mental illness, specifically, depression, with impunity. The effect of the trial court’s initial ruling essentially said that a physician can give bad medical care to a person suffering from depression and not be held liable if, as a result of that bad medical care, the person goes on to commit suicide.
The Supreme Court disagreed, and ruled that doctors have to provide appropriate treatment to patients suffering from depression, just as they do to patients suffering from other forms of physical or mental illness. Although not mentioned in the court’s opinion, depression is very common in America today. The Anxiety and Depression Association of America estimates that there are 15,000,000 Americans suffering from depression and approximately seven percent of all Americans above the age of 18 suffer from some form of major depression. Thus, depression is a common condition and, in our view, physicians and other healthcare providers who fail to provide proper treatment for patients suffering from depression must be held accountable.
The Supreme Court decision means that they will be held accountable irrespective of the fact that suicide is a self-inflicted condition. Many courts around the country have treated suicide cases as different from other types of malpractice cases because it’s the patient who ends their own life. The courts have said that these types of malpractice cases should be treated differently. The Florida Supreme Court, however, said that they should not be treated differently. In effect, the court was saying that doctors have a responsibility to treat patients with illnesses in accordance with the standard of care and it makes no difference whether the illness that they are treating is a mental or physical illness.
Stewart Tilghman Fox Bianchi & Cain, P.A. is proud to represent and defend clients who have been wronged in personal injury and medical malpractice cases. If you would like more information about how we can assist you, fill out the form on our website to tell us about your case, or call us at (305) 770-6335 to speak with one of our attorneys.