Can ACT doctors be negligent when suicide attempts occur?

Published 13 Dec 2017

Nearly 2,900 people in the country committed suicide in 2016, according to the latest Australian Bureau of Statistics data.

Suicide is also the leading cause of death among Australians aged between 15 and 44, Australian Institute of Health and Welfare research shows.

Medical practitioners have an obligation to ensure they exercise reasonable care and skill when they provide treatment and advice to patients. But how does this duty of care relate to mental health and suicide attempts?

Can a doctor or medical facility fail in their duty of care if they do not have the correct processes in place to supervise people who are at risk of taking their own lives? A recent case that went before the ACT Supreme Court provides insight into how liability laws are applied in these cases.

Man admitted to hospital after suicide attempt

The plaintiff, whose name was suppressed, was admitted to Canberra Hospital in 2007 after self-harming and threatening to throw himself off a neighbour’s roof.

Police officers detained the man and took him for treatment under mental health laws. A full written statement was provided to medical professionals, and they were aware the patient had psychological problems, including delusions.

Later that day, the plaintiff fled from the ward and ran to a multi-story car park, where he jumped from one of the aboveground levels of the facility, breaking both his legs.

The plaintiff claimed the hospital was negligent by failing to:

  • Properly monitor him;
  • Prevent him from self-harming;
  • Perform checks on whether he was at risk of self-harming; and
  • Adequately respond to knowledge that he was prone to self-harming and delusional.

What was the judge’s decision?

Justice John Burns ruled that the hospital showed a “clear failure” in not assessing the man’s psychological state within four hours of admission, as mental health laws require.

Moreover, the judge decided staff did not respond appropriately to knowledge that the man was delusional, which would likely have led to more strict detention measures.

“Had that occurred, it is probable that the plaintiff would not have been able to abscond and would not have suffered the injuries that he did,” he explained.

Justice Burns therefore awarded the man more than $130,000 in damages and out-of-pocket expenses.

The case emphasises the high standards that medical practitioners and hospitals must adhere to when dealing with patients who are at risk of suicide.

If you would like to pursue compensation through a liability claim, please contact a member of our team at Gerard Malouf & Partners Compensation, Medical Negligence & Will Dispute Lawyers.