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Evidence-Based Reviews

Practice, not malpractice: 3 clinical habits to reduce liability risk

Psychiatrists face legal risk not only when patients are harmed but also when they harm others.

Vol. 2, No. 12 / December 2003

Psychiatrists’ risk of malpractice liability1 is broadening as courts consider the uncertainties of off-label prescribing, telemedicine, and confidentiality. Juries are holding mental health practitioners responsible for harm done both to and by psychiatric patients.

How you keep medical records, communicate with patients and colleagues, and arrange consultations can reduce your malpractice risk (Box 1).4-9 We offer recommendations based on court decisions and other evidence for managing:

  • traditional risks—such as patient violence and suicide, adverse drug reactions, sex with patients, faulty termination of treatment, and supervisory and consultative relationships4
  • newer risks—such as recovered memory, off-label prescribing, practice guidelines, and e-mail and confidentiality.

Box 1

Want to reduce malpractice risk? Cultivate 3 clinical habits

1. Keep thorough medical records

The most powerful defense against a malpractice suit is a well-documented chart. It can often prevent a malpractice suit by providing evidence that the physician adequately evaluated the available information and made good-faith efforts with his or her best judgment. Juries are typically forgiving of mistakes made in this context.4,5

Write legibly, and sign and date all entries. Try to think out loud in the chart. By outlining your thoughts about differential diagnosis, risks and benefits, and treatment options, you can help a jury understand your decision-making process and show that you carefully evaluated the situation. When documenting difficult cases, for example, imagine a plaintiff’s attorney reading your notes to a jury.6

2. Communicate freely with patients

Careful interaction with patients and their families can also prevent lawsuits. Communicating includes preparing patients for what to expect during treatment sessions, encouraging feedback, and even using humor. 7 Freely sharing treatment information with patients can build a sense of mutual decision-making and responsibility. 8 Acknowledging treatment limitations and deflating unrealistic expectations can also protect you.

Patients who file malpractice suits are often seeking an apology or expression of regret from their physicians. It is appropriate and prudent to admit and apologize for minor errors. It is also appropriate to express condolence over what both sides agree is a severe, negative outcome. 9 Expressing sympathy is not equivalent to admitting wrongdoing.

3. Seek consultation as needed

Discussing difficult or ambiguous cases with peers, supervisors, or legal staff can help shield you from liability. For example:

  • Second opinions may help you make difficult clinical decisions.
  • Peers and supervisors may provide useful suggestions to improve patient care.
  • Legal staff can give advice regarding liability.

The fact that you sought consultation can be used in court as evidence against negligence, as it shows you tried to ensure appropriate care for your patient.9

This article describes general guidelines and is not intended to constitute legal advice. All practitioners have a responsibility to know the laws of the jurisdictions in which they practice.


The case that opened Pandora’s box. Prosenjit Poddar, a student at the University of California at Berkeley, was infatuated with coed Tanya Tarasoff and told his psychologist he intended to kill her. The psychologist notified his psychiatric supervisor and called campus police.

The psychologist told police Poddar was dangerous to himself and others. He stated that he would sign an emergency hold if they would bring Poddar to the hospital.

The police apprehended Poddar but released him. Poddar dropped out of therapy and 2 months later fatally stabbed Ms. Tarasoff.

Ms. Tarasoff’s parents sued those who treated Poddar and the University of California.2 After a complicated legal course, the California Supreme Court ruled that once a therapist determines—or should have determined—that a patient poses a serious danger of violence to others, “he bears a duty to exercise reasonable care to protect the foreseeable victim of that danger.”3

The 1976 Tarasoff ruling has become a national standard of practice, leading to numerous other patient violence lawsuits. In these cases, psychiatrists are most likely to be found liable when recently released inpatients commit violent acts, particularly if the physician had reason to know the patient was dangerous and failed to take adequate precautions or appropriately assess the patient.4

Wider interpretations. Cases in several states have extended the Tarasoff ruling. In at least two cases, this standard has been applied when the patient threatened no specific victim before committing violence:

  • A New Jersey court (McIntosh v. Milano, 1979) found a psychiatrist liable for malpractice on grounds that a therapist has a duty to protect society, just as a doctor must protect society by reporting carriers of dangerous diseases.
  • A Nebraska court (Lipari v. Sears, Roebuck, and Co., 1980) held that physicians have a duty to protect—even if the specific identity of victims is unknown—so long as the physician should know that the patient presents an unreasonable risk of harm to others.2

Auto accidents. Tarasoff liability also has been extended to auto accidents. In Washington state (Petersen v. Washington, 1983), a psychiatrist was held liable for injuries to victims of an accident caused by a psychiatric patient. The court ruled that the psychiatrist had a duty to take reasonable precautions to protect any foreseeable persons from being endangered by the patient.

In a similar case in Wisconsin (Schuster and Schuster v. Altenberg, et al., 1988), the court ruled that damages could be awarded to anyone whose harm could have been prevented had the physician practiced according to professional standards.2

Other extensions include cases such as Naidu v. Laird, 1988, in which patient violence occurred more than 5 months after hospitalization.2 Vermont has extended the Tarasoff precedent to property destruction by psychiatric patients.10

Recommendation. Most states require a psychiatrist to protect against only specific threats to identifiable victims.10 To defend yourself against a Tarasoff-type suit, you must show that you:

  • carefully assessed the patient’s risk for violence
  • provided appropriate care
  • and took appropriate precautions.

The most protective evidence is a medical record documenting that you thoroughly assessed a patient for risk of violence (Table).4,11

If you are unsure about how to manage a patient you believe may be dangerous to himself or others, consult with supervisors, peers, and legal advisors. Many states have Tarasoff-like statutes that specify the conditions that require action and the appropriate actions.

In states without specific statutes, options that generally satisfy Tarasoff requirements include hospitalizing the patient, notifying authorities, and/or warning the potential victim.10 As the Tarasoff case demonstrated, notifying authorities may not substitute for warning or hospitalizing.2


Patient suicide accounts for one-fifth of claims covered by the American Psychiatric Association (APA) insurance plan.

In court, key points of challenge to a physician’s judgment in a suicide case include the admission evaluation and any status changes. Thorough risk assessment includes carefully reviewing existing records, evaluating risk factors for suicide, and seeking advice from colleagues or supervisors when appropriate.4

Recommendation. Document for every inpatient admission, discharge, or status change that the patient’s risk for suicide was assessed. List risk factors, protective factors, and risk for self-harm.

Explicitly address in the patient’s chart any comments about suicidality (such as heard by nursing staff).9 Document your rationale for medical decisions and orders, consistently follow unit policies, and explain risks and benefits of hospitalization to patients and their families.

Before discharge, schedule appropriate follow-up and make reasonable efforts to ensure medication adherence.4


Sexual involvement with patients is indefensible and uncontestable in malpractice cases. Even so, up to 9% of male therapists and 3% of female therapists report in surveys that they have had sexual interaction with their patients.4

In 1985 the APA excluded sex with patients from its malpractice insurance coverage. Courts generally consider a treatment to be within the standard of care if a respectable minority of physicians consider it to be appropriate. Sex with patients is considered an absolute deviation from the standard of care, and no respectable minority of practitioners supports this practice. Because patients are substantially harmed, sex with patients is considered prima facie malpractice.12


Is this patient dangerous? Risk factors for violence


  • Delusions of persecution, mind-control, or thought insertion
  • Command hallucinations
  • Impulsivity and low frustration tolerance
  • Current thoughts of violence
  • Past violent behavior
  • Evidence of aggression and hostility
  • Current intoxication, history of substance abuse


  • Male gender
  • Age late teens to early twenties
  • Low IQ
  • Access to and proficiency with weapons


  • Employment instability
  • Residential instability
  • Low socioeconomic status
  • Recent losses, stressors, and conflicts


Adverse drug reactions—particularly tardive dyskinesia (TD)—are a source of significant losses in malpractice cases. Multimillion-dollar awards have been granted, especially when neuroleptic antipsychotics have been given in excessive dosages without proper monitoring.13

Informed consent has been a particularly difficult issue with the use of neuroleptic medications. Many doctors worry that patients who fear developing TD will not take prescribed neuroleptics. A study of North Carolina psychiatrists in the 1980s revealed that only 30% mentioned TD when telling their patients about neuroleptics’ possible side effects.13

The fact that a patient develops TD while taking an antipsychotic does not establish grounds for malpractice; a valid malpractice suit must also establish negligence. Negligence could include failing to obtain appropriate informed consent or continuing to prescribe an antipsychotic without adequately examining the patient.4

Informed consent does not require a patient to fully understand everything about a medication. The patient must understand the information a reasonable patient would want to know. Obvious misunderstandings must be corrected.

Recommendation. Consider informed consent a process, rather than one event—especially when you give neuroleptics for acute psychotic episodes. You can establish, review, and refresh consent in follow-up visits as medications help patients become more coherent and organized.

If you doubt a patient’s capacity to provide informed consent, a court determination may be necessary. In emergencies, however, treatment becomes a priority, even if the patient’s capacity to make rational decisions has not been established.13


Terminating treatment can lead to malpractice, particularly if a patient becomes suicidal or violent. Psychiatrists have the right to choose their patients but cannot terminate care if a patient is acutely ill or requires emergency care.

Ensuring appropriate follow-up for patients at risk for decompensation often requires more than providing a referral or phone number. With the patient’s permission, for example, you could contact his subsequent psychiatrist or work with his support network to ensure that he receives follow-up care.14

Recommendation. With stable patients, send a written notice of termination and specify a reasonable period, usually 30 days. Send the letter by certified mail, and request a return receipt. Offer to help the patient find a new doctor, and say that you will forward the patient’s records to the new doctor when you receive appropriate release-of-information paperwork.15


Under the legal concept of respondeat superior (“let the master reply”), liability for the actions of subordinates may be transferred upward to the supervisor.4 For psychiatrists, supervisory liability obviously applies to teaching residents but may also apply in joint care, as with psychologists or social workers.

Recommendation. As a co-treating psychiatrist, you may be liable for other therapists’ actions unless you formally distinguish your role as a prescriber and not as a supervisor.9

When you prescribe medications for patients of nonphysician therapists, be sure you, the therapist, and patient understand the nature of your collaboration. Document the type of relationship and your discussion with the patient in the patient’s chart.


Consult-liaison psychiatrists typically face a lower malpractice risk than do those who provide primary treatment. Duty to care for the patient is usually established by a formal consult request, after which the psychiatrist examines the patient and recommends treatment to the primary team.

You can, however, establish duty without meeting a patient. If sufficiently detailed, an informal “curbside” consult may establish a duty and corresponding liability16 (Box 2).4,5,9,17.18

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