People turn to mental health professionals when they’re most vulnerable and looking for help working through emotional wounds and other personal issues. They speak to therapists about their intimate secrets, deepest fears, and darkest pain. A therapist who is a licensed doctor may also prescribe strong medications to treat the patient’s conditions. These medications can come with serious complications.
The psychotherapy process heals many people, but there are potential downsides. Some unethical mental health professionals abuse their positions of power. Some manipulate their patients into sexual relationships. Others are negligent in their duties to warn law enforcement about patients who pose dangers to the public or to intervene to help patients on the verge of self-harm.
What happens when therapists break their oath of duty or violate their patients’ trust? Can people sue their therapists for medical malpractice? The answer is yes.
Did your psychologist betray your trust and cause you harm by crossing a moral, ethical, or professional boundary? Contact an experienced Doral Psychotherapy Malpractice and Abuse Attorneys at Sibley Dolman to discuss your legal options. The American Institute of Legal Counsel has named our personal injury practice as one of America’s Ten Best Law Firms.
What Is Psychotherapy?
Psychotherapy refers to a body of mental health treatments that deal with mental illnesses and disorders. Mental Health America recently released a report called The State of Mental Health in America 2018. The study found:
- One in five Americans (40 million adults) has mental health issues.
- Teenagers diagnosed with severe depression increased from 5.9 percent in 2012 to 8.2 percent in 2015.
- Seventy-six percent of teens receive insufficient treatment.
- Fifty-six percent of Americans with mental illnesses don’t receive treatment.
What Is Therapeutic Malpractice?
Therapeutic malpractice occurs when a mental health professional’s negligence or recklessness harms a patient. Of course, patients can’t sue a healthcare provider just because treatments didn’t produce the results they wanted. Nor can patients file suit against therapists who made mistakes in judgment. Instead, a plaintiff must meet several requirements before seeking legal recourse for therapeutic malpractice:
- There is a prior therapist-patient relationship. A plaintiff must have an established, contractual relationship with the psychologist. This means the patient hired the professional, and the therapist agreed to oversee the medical or mental health care. A patient typically cannot sue a doctor for advice provided in a non-clinical setting.
- The therapist was negligent (or breached a standard of care). A doctor doesn’t have to give the “best” care. A doctor only needs to provide careful, adequate, and skilled treatment according to the “standard of care” applicable to the area of practice. The law considers sexual misconduct a breach of the standard of care, for example.
- The psychologist’s actions resulted in a physical or mental injury. Patient harm in a therapeutic malpractice case can at times present challenges to prove because the victim was seeking mental health treatment, so it may require demonstrating that the therapist’s wrongful actions resulted in further harm. A plaintiff often needs to find an independent expert to testify about how the malpractice caused that additional harm.
- A connection exists between the physician’s malpractice and the injury. A patient can’t sue a therapist just because of substandard care. The practitioner’s actions must actually cause a specific injury.
Examples of Therapeutic Malpractice
Few therapists breach their patients’ trust. The Trust, a liability insurance company, conducted a therapeutic malpractice study that found:
- Forty percent of psychologists will receive licensing board complaints during a 20-year career.
- Fewer than two percent will face a malpractice suit.
In other words, therapeutic malpractice cases are rare. However, when they happen, these cases devastate victims and their families. The following examples involve recent cases of psychotherapy malpractice.
Jacqueline Granicz’s Suicide: A Breach of Duty
A common area of therapeutic malpractice occurs when the mental health provider breaches the duty of care. In 2016, Florida’s Supreme Court ruled that a medical malpractice suit could proceed against Dr. Joseph S. Chirillo Jr. Robert Granicz says Chirillo’s negligence caused his wife, Jacqueline, to commit suicide.
Chirillo and his practice, Millennium Physician Group, treated the 55-year-old woman for depression. The doctor prescribed Granicz the antidepressant venlafaxine (Effexor, made by Pfizer) in 2005. She stopped taking the drug in 2008 because it caused her gastrointestinal problems, stress, and insomnia.
Chirillo didn’t schedule an appointment when he learned his patient had stopped taking the medication. Instead, he switched her prescription to escitalopram (Lexapro, manufactured by Forest Laboratories). The doctor told Jacqueline she could get samples from his office. She picked up the drugs. The next day, she hanged herself.
Granicz said that Chirillo breached his professional duty to recognize and respond to the change in his wife’s symptoms. After several appeals, the Supreme Court allowed a malpractice case against Chirillo to proceed.
Lisa Grover: A Case of Sexual Misconduct
Sexual misconduct is another area of therapeutic malpractice. Nearly 12 percent of American psychologists admitted to having sexual relationships with their patients. One recent case involves a Boston-area woman. Lisa Grover turned to psychologist Melvin Rabin after her 25-year marriage fell apart. She believed that the psychotherapist could help her put her life back together.
Rabin used his role to manipulate Grover into a sexual relationship. The pair had sex on his office couch. His actions violated state laws and ethical standards. Grover reported Rabin to the Board of Registration of Psychologists in 2016, which found her report credible.
Types of Therapeutic Malpractice
The National Register of Health Service Psychologists, a credentialing agency for therapists, lists the following areas as potential therapeutic malpractice.
- Abuse of transference – During transference, the patient transfers the feelings they had as a child onto the therapist. They do this unconsciously. This places the therapist in a powerful position and the patient in a vulnerable one. Unscrupulous psychologists take advantage of their roles by engaging in an abuse of transference, also called professional incest.
- Assault – Physical assaults can involve mental health physicians who administer medical treatments without the plaintiff’s consent. For example, a physician may inject a patient with a sedative or other drug without permission.
- Defamation – Defamation is a statement that lowers a patient’s reputation or esteem in the community. This action occurs when a psychologist communicates information about a client to a third party.
An incorrect diagnosis can at times qualify as defamation, especially if it’s revealed to a third party. Most mental health providers do not disclose information without their patients’ written consent, but even if they’ve obtained that consent they must limit what they disclose to information that is necessary.
Violation of privacy – The law requires a therapist to honor patient privacy unless patients pose a threat to themselves or others. If a mental health provider releases private information without consent, a patient can sue a therapist for publicizing information that is:
- Private (such as client meetings)
- Released to a third party
Another privacy area involves treatment notes and reports. A client can sue a psychologist who doesn’t properly dispose of records.
False imprisonment – A psychologist can’t hold a patient against their will. Participation during therapy must be voluntary. The plaintiff can charge a therapist with false imprisonment if they can’t leave.
Battery – This violent crime involves the harmful or offensive touching of a patient. Repeated, unwanted touching is unlawful.
Negligence – This is a common form of therapeutic malpractice. The law bases negligence on fault, not the therapist’s intent. Again, there are four areas a plaintiff must meet to prove negligence.
- The doctor or psychologist must have a duty to the patient.
- The doctor or psychologist breached that duty.
- There was a relationship between the doctor or psychologist’s actions and the damages.
- There are specific damages caused by the doctor or psychologist’s actions.
Crosses boundaries with a Patient – Sometimes, a therapist doesn’t respect ethical boundaries. The American Psychological Association refers to this unethical conduct as multiple relationships. This means the therapist has more than a professional relationship with a client. Boundary violations can also involve non-sexual relationships outside of the office, such as employing a patient.
Other Types of Therapeutic Malpractice
Psychology Today columnist Ruth Lee Johnson listed additional areas of therapeutic malpractice. These include:
- The physician didn’t assess that a patient was a suicide risk.
- The doctor made an incorrect diagnosis.
- The professional provided improper treatments and medicines.
- There was a failure to diagnose a harmful condition.
- The therapist didn’t warn third parties about threats from a current patient (as required by law).
- The psychologist created false memories in the patient.
- The doctor shared information with a third party without the patient’s consent.
- Prescribing psychotropic drugs without getting the patient’s informed consent.
- The therapist threatens the patient.
- A doctor falsifies the patient’s records.
What Actions Should Victims of Therapeutic Malpractice Take?
Many therapeutic abuse survivors feel scared and ashamed. The therapist’s actions shatter their lives and violate their trust. The Therapist Exploitation Link Line (TELL) is an organization that helps victims of therapeutic abuse. On its website, it lists the following actions victims of therapeutic abuse could consider taking to address that abuse:
- File a civil lawsuit against your therapist for damages.
- Register a licensure complaint with the board.
- Demand private compensation for damages from the therapist.
- File a criminal complaint against the therapist. (This is only limited to select states.)
- Confront the therapist using a qualified mediator.
- Get individual or group therapy to deal with the abuse.
- File a complaint with the ethics board of the professional association.
- Notify the therapist’s employer or agency director.
- Speak with state authorities.
- Do nothing.
Damages Suffered as a Result of Psychotherapy Medical Malpractice
Psychotherapy medical malpractice has the potential to cause severe damages to those it affects. Patients of therapists and similar psychological treatment professionals rely on adequate care and can suffer because of these professional’s negligence. Some of the most common damages that are caused by psychotherapy professional’s negligence include the medical expenses needed to rectify the psychological damage caused by such negligence. The psychological damage that can be done to a patient if a therapist or psychologist is negligent can take extensive time and effort to treat which does not happen for free. A patient may sometimes even be physically be harmed because of this negligence as well.
There is also the issue of lost wages. A patient could miss out on work because a patient may be physically or mentally injured because of a therapist’s negligence. A patient may also have diminished earning capacity and not be able to work their job at the same level they used too or be unable to pursue the same career. Also, there is general pain and suffering that a patient may suffer. While it is not a tangible damage it still deserves compensation all the same.
Doral, Florida Therapeutic Malpractice Lawyer
Before taking any of the actions above, if a mental health provider has crossed a boundary or violated your trust, contact our veteran legal team to schedule a free consultation. Our lawyers will take a look at your claim and discuss how we may be able to help you recover compensation.
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Doral, FL 33166
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