Medical Malpractice Claims Against Psychiatrists

Like other medical professionals, a psychiatrist can be held liable for negligence in a medical malpractice lawsuit. Here are the key legal issues.

By , J.D. · DePaul University College of Law
Updated by Stacy Barrett, Attorney · UC Law San Francisco

The psychiatrist-patient relationship is one of the most intensely personal in the field of professional health care. As a result, a psychiatrist's errors or missteps in treatment can carry significant consequences for patients. In this article, we'll:

  • describe some types of medical malpractice cases that emerge from the psychiatrist-patient relationship, and
  • discuss what a patient must prove in court in order to win a psychiatric malpractice lawsuit.

Can I Sue a Psychiatrist for Malpractice?

Psychiatrists have been held liable for malpractice for different reasons, including:

  • having a sexual relationship with a patient
  • failing to conduct a suicide risk assessment
  • failing to prevent a patient suicide
  • creating false memories
  • making an improper diagnosis
  • prescribing the wrong medication
  • sharing information without patient consent, and
  • failing to warn third parties of threats from current patients as required by law.

Let's take a look at a few of the more common examples.

Exploiting the Trust Relationship

The relationship between psychiatrists and patients is one of trust. Psychiatrists wield considerable power over their patients and patients are often quite vulnerable when they seek care. What happens when psychiatrists exploit their patients? For example, what are the consequences when a psychiatrist has sex with a patient?

Psychiatrists are bound by strict ethical rules when it comes to patient care. Sexual contact that happens during a physician-patient relationship is a violation of a psychiatrist's ethical code and can lead to disciplinary proceedings by state medical boards and a civil malpractice lawsuit for damages.

A patient has a right to expect competent and professional conduct from a psychiatrist. If the psychiatrist's conduct fails to meet that standard and causes harm to the patient, the psychiatrist will be liable for that harm. This can be true even if the patient consented to a sexual relationship. The harm in this situation can come in many forms. The most common form is emotional harm resulting from a breach of trust.

Failing to Prevent a Suicide

Psychiatrists and other health care professionals owe a duty of care to their patients. Psychiatrists who violate (breach) that duty of care can be liable when a patient dies of suicide. For example, psychiatrists have a duty to assess suicide risk. They also have a duty to take action if they know—or should have known—that a patient is experiencing suicidal thoughts or behaviors.

Psychiatrists who fail to take action to protect patients from self-harm can be liable for the wrongful death of patients.

Prescribing Improper Medication

Obviously, prescribing the wrong medication or the wrong dosage of the right medication can have dire consequences. For that reason, psychiatrists are required to exercise care when prescribing drugs and to properly advise patients about the risks associated with certain medications. Psychiatrists can be liable for malpractice for medication errors.

Failing to Warn Third Parties of Threats

Under ethical standards, psychiatrists and mental health professionals must keep whatever their patients tell them during treatment confidential. But what happens when a patient informs a psychiatrist that the patient intends to hurt or kill someone? It might seem obvious that the psychiatrist should report the conversation to the police in order to prevent the murder, but warning the police or the threatened third party violates confidentiality.

Say the psychiatrist honors confidentiality and the patient follows through on the threat and commits murder. Can the family of the victim sue the psychiatrist for failing to warn of the threat? Although it is a close call, and the answer can vary by state, the answer is probably yes. The family of the victim can probably sue the psychiatrist if the patient clearly informed the psychiatrist of an intent to kill and the psychiatrist believed that the threat was legitimate, but failed to act.

How to Prove Psychiatric Malpractice

In order to win a psychiatric malpractice case, a patient must prove three basic elements:

  • There was a doctor-patient relationship.
  • The doctor breached the standard of care (negligence).
  • The patient was injured as a result of the doctor's negligence.

Doctor-Patient Relationship

When a doctor examines a patient or provides treatment, a doctor-patient relationship is typically established. Patients can easily prove this element through documentation like treatment records and bills.


In medical malpractice lawsuits, patients must prove two things to establish negligence:

  • standard of care, and
  • breach of the standard of care.

Standard of Care. In a malpractice case, the "standard of care" refers to the level of competence that most psychiatrists would have demonstrated under similar circumstances. In nearly all cases, an expert witness is required to establish the appropriate standard of care.

Breach of the Standard of Care. The next step is to prove that the psychiatrist fell short of the standard of care while treating the patient. For example, if the standard of care requires the psychiatrist to diagnose and treat a fairly common mental health condition and the doctor fails to do that, the doctor likely breached the standard of care.

Harm Caused by the Negligence

A breach of the standard of care isn't enough to win a medical malpractice lawsuit. To win, the patient must also prove that the psychiatrist's negligence caused the patient foreseeable harm (a physical or mental injury). This harm can take many forms in a psychiatric malpractice case, including:

  • making the patient's condition worse
  • causing unreasonable and unexpected complications
  • requiring additional medical treatment, or
  • suicide.

A critical issue is whether the doctor's negligence actually caused the patient harm. Most patients rely on expert witnesses to establish this causal link. For example, let's say a psychiatrist prescribes a medication to a patient experiencing depression. The medication is known to increase the risk of suicidal thoughts and behaviors in patients with depression. The doctor doesn't tell the patient about the risk. If the patient dies of suicide a few weeks after starting on the medication, an expert witness may testify that the psychiatrist's failure to prescribe a different medication or adequately advise the patient of the risks associated with the medication caused or significantly contributed to the patient's death.

Talk to a Lawyer

If you or someone you love has been harmed by a psychiatrist or other mental health professional, talk to a lawyer. Malpractice cases are complex. You'll need someone with legal and medical knowledge on your side.

Learn more about finding the right lawyer for your medical malpractice claim. You can also connect with a lawyer directly from this page for free.

Make the Most of Your Claim
Get the compensation you deserve.
We've helped 175 clients find attorneys today.
There was a problem with the submission. Please refresh the page and try again
Full Name is required
Email is required
Please enter a valid Email
Phone Number is required
Please enter a valid Phone Number
Zip Code is required
Please add a valid Zip Code
Please enter a valid Case Description
Description is required

How It Works

  1. Briefly tell us about your case
  2. Provide your contact information
  3. Choose attorneys to contact you