We are currently involved in a wrongful death case against a Georgia private probation company for negligent probation supervision. The probation company knew our client was a severe alcoholic, a type-1 diabetic, and had three DUI convictions. Despite this and contrary to the court’s order and Georgia law, the probation company failed to reasonably monitor our client for alcohol consumption. For example, our client violated court-ordered home alcohol monitoring testing 183 times, but this was never reported to the court. The probation company’s lenient supervision gave our client the opportunity to drink heavily for weeks on end, ultimately resulting in her death from a diabetic coma.
There are no Georgia appellate decisions directly on point. But, there is a similar case, at least with respect to claims for professional negligence. Peterson v. Reeves, 315 Ga.App. 370 (2012). In Peterson, a plaintiff sued her psychiatrist for failing to prevent injuries sustained when she attempted suicide. The psychiatrist moved for summary judgment, arguing he had no duty to involuntarily commit Plaintiff, who at the time of the suicide attempt was in an outpatient mental health care. The trial court denied the psychiatrist’s summary judgment motion. Judge McFadden, writing for the Georgia Court of Appeals, agreed with the trial court, finding that
whether [the psychiatrist] breached duties arising from the psychiatrist-patient relationship is an issue of fact . . . [t]he evidence would authorize a jury to find that [the psychiatrist] shares in the responsibility for a negligent failure to subject [the plaintiff] to a suicide or self-injury risk assessment, and adequate psychiatric evaluation, and consideration for hospitalization; that he shares in responsibility for the failure to stabilize [the plaintiff]; and that he was negligent in failing to be available for consultation, or to have another psychiatrist available . . . [a]nd the evidence would authorize a jury to find that those negligent omissions were a proximate cause of the defendant’s lack of control over [the plaintiff] at the time of her attempted suicide as well as of the attempted suicide as well.
The underlying facts show that the psychiatrist was aware of plaintiff’s history of severe mental illness and high risk to attempt suicide, but, nonetheless, he allowed her to be discharged from a mental hospital without being subjected to a suicide assessment or considered for involuntary hospitalization. Two days later, plaintiff poured gasoline over herself and set herself on fire.
The psychiatrist argued that he was not liable because he never had control over the plaintiff. The court disagreed, finding that “control over the plaintiff” is not relevant because the psychiatrist had a duty to provide a minimum level of medical care to the plaintiff. The appellate court ruled that whether the psychiatrist’s care of the patient fell below that minimum level is up to a jury to decide.
The psychiatrist also argued that even if he has a duty, that duty does not include taking affirmative action to protect a patient. Again the court rejected that argument, finding the duty at issue is not strictly a duty to involuntarily commit the patient, but, rather, is “a duty to exercise the applicable degree of care and skill in the treatment” of the patient.
The take home is that in a doctor-patient or in a probation officer-probationee relationships, the doctor or probation officer have a duty to do their job with a minimum level of competency. What the minimum level of competency varies from situation to situation, and is a question to be resolved by a jury.