Malpractice Dangers for Psychiatrists

O. Brandt Caudill, Jr, Esq


December 29, 2009

In This Article

Lawsuits That blame the Medication

In a subcategory of cases, a patient taking medication acted violently, and either the patient or the injured party blames the medication for the violent act. A particularly horrific example is Williamson v Liptzin, where Wendell Williamson was a student who saw a psychiatrist at the University of North Carolina student services counseling center in the early 1990s.

In 1992, while attending law school, Mr. Williamson screamed at students on campus, struck himself in the face, and was referred to student services, which had him involuntarily committed in a hospital. Williamson reported having heard a voice talking to him for 8 months and he believed he was telepathic. The hospital staff had reported that he had a gun in his apartment. He refused to remain voluntarily at the hospital and refused medication.

Two years later, Williamson had 6 counseling sessions with Dr. Liptzin at the student services counseling center. Based on Williamson's symptoms and behavior, Dr. Liptzin suggested Williamson take the antipsychotic drug, thiothixene (Navane®).

At no point did Williamson threaten to harm anyone to Dr. Liptzin. After last seeing Dr. Liptzin, Williamson continued to take the thiothixene and appeared to be doing better.

But on January 26, 1995, 8 months after his last session with Dr. Liptzin, Williamson randomly fired on unarmed people in the streets of Chapel Hill, killing two of them. In November 1995, he was found not guilty by reason of insanity and placed in a facility. He never expressed any threats of violence to the psychiatrist, and there was a long gap in time before he attacked and killed several people.

Williamson filed a suit from prison and ultimately obtained a jury verdict in his favor, which was a startling result. The verdict was reversed on appeal, and the court of appeal noted that the experts for both sides agreed that the shooting was unpredictable to the psychiatrist.

There have been a number of attempts to try and link psychiatrist medication with acts of violence. Most have been unsuccessful. These lawsuits are primarily aimed at the manufacturers, on a products liability theory. But in some instances, the psychiatrists are added as a necessary party, either to seek state court jurisdiction or to have a fall-back malpractice claim if the products claim is denied.

Medication side effects are a recurrent issue in malpractice litigation against psychiatrists. Psychiatrists are well aware of their duty to disclose the side effects of the medication. The monitoring of the medication will be closely reviewed in a side effects case. It is essential to use a consent form that details the known side effects and risks of the medications being prescribed.


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