Why Exempting Negligent Doctors May Reduce Suicide: An Empirical Analysis
39 Pages Posted: 30 Jul 2016 Last revised: 21 Mar 2017
Date Written: July 29, 2016
This article is the first to empirically analyze the impact of tort liability on suicide. Counter-intuitively, our analysis shows that suicide rates increase when potential tort liability is expanded to include psychiatrists — the very defendants who would seem best able to prevent suicide. Using a 50-state panel regression for 1981 to 2013, we find that states that would hold psychiatrists (but not other doctors) liable for malpractice resulting in a suicide experienced a 12.8% increase in suicides. The effect is even stronger, 16.8%, when we include controls. We do not believe this is because suicide prevention doesn’t work. Rather, we theorize that it is because some psychiatrists facing potential liability choose not to work with patients at high risk for suicide. The article makes important contributions to the law of proximate cause and to the more general phenomenon of regulatory avoidance. Traditionally, one could not be liable for malpractice that causes another’s suicide — the suicide was considered a superseding and intervening cause. About half of states retain the old common law rule. Others have created exceptions for psychiatrists only, or for all doctors, and some have abandoned the old rule entirely. Our findings suggest that expanding liability for psychiatrists may have an adverse affect. Accordingly, this article suggests that the best policy might be to retain or revive the traditional no-liability-for-suicide rule for mental health specialists. The implications are enormous: over 40,000 people in the United States die each year from suicide.
Keywords: torts, suicide
JEL Classification: K13, K32, I18
Suggested Citation: Suggested Citation