Skip to main content

Verified by Psychology Today


When to Sue Your Psychiatrist for Malpractice

How to differentiate between malpractice and poor practice.

Psychiatric treatment can be a demanding, complex, and emotional experience for both doctor and patient. Because of the personal nature of the treatment, sometimes it is hard to tell when the doctor has committed malpractice.

Why is it important to differentiate between malpractice and simply poor doctoring? Because in a successful malpractice case, the patient can recover money damages to compensate for injury, including emotional harm. Alternatives to a malpractice lawsuit include filing a human rights complaint, filing a complaint with the psychiatrist’s employer, filing an ethics charge against the psychiatrist, writing negative online reviews for the psychiatrist, or speaking with the psychiatrist directly. However, these alternatives will not provide recompense to the patient for any harm inflicted.

In order to establish a malpractice lawsuit, a patient generally has to establish four elements:

  1. There was a doctor-patient relationship.
  2. The doctor breached the duty of reasonable care (i.e., was negligent).
  3. The patient was injured (physically or mentally).
  4. There was a causal link between the negligence and the injury.

Psychiatrists have been found to commit malpractice by, among other things:

  • Engaging in a sexual relationship with a patient;
  • Failing to conduct a proper suicide risk assessment;
  • Failing to prevent a patient’s suicide;
  • Making an improper diagnosis;
  • Administering improper treatment or prescribing improper medications;
  • Failing to notice or diagnose a harmful condition;
  • Failing to warn third parties of threats from current patients as required to or allowed by law;
  • Creating false memories;
  • Sharing information without patient consent;
  • Prescribing psychotropic medications without going through the informed consent process;
  • Threatening the patient;
  • Falsifying patient records.

This list is not exhaustive. Nor is every item on the list a malpractice lawsuit per se. Recall the four elements above. For a psychiatrist to be liable for malpractice, he or she must have failed to take reasonable care, and the patient must have suffered injury as a result. A doctor can take reasonable care and still make an incorrect judgment call, so not every incorrect decision is actionable as malpractice. However, some items on the list—for example, engaging in a sexual relationship with a patient—almost always lead to prevailing malpractice claims.

Many cases of psychiatric malpractice are never reported because the victims are already emotionally unstable. If you suspect that you have been a victim of psychiatric malpractice, consider consulting a local attorney.


Disclaimer: This post is for informational purposes only and not for the purpose of providing legal advice. You should contact your attorney to obtain advice with respect to any particular issue or problem. Use of and access to this post or any of the e-mail links contained within the site do not create an attorney-client relationship between the author and the user or browser. The opinions expressed at or through this site are the opinions of the individual author and may not reflect the opinions of any law firm or Psychology Today.

More from Ruth Lee Johnson J.D.
More from Psychology Today