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How Mental Illness Affects Liability for Personal Injury

How Mental Illness Affects Liability for Personal Injury
People suffering from mental illness sometimes injure others. From the standpoint of criminal prosecution, a defendant’s mental illness can be a defense against conviction or alter sentencing. But when a mentally ill individual causes personal injury, the injured person may wish to pursue a civil lawsuit to seek compensation for the costs of recovery.

Mental health and negligence

A personal injury case usually focuses on whether the defendant acted negligently. For negligence to apply, the defendant must have owed the plaintiff a legal duty of care, and breached that duty by acting, or failing to act, as a reasonable person would under the circumstances. Generally speaking, a mentally ill person is not freed from legal obligations solely because of mental illness. The standard for civil responsibility is lower than the standard for criminal liability. For example, a driver has a legal duty to drive in compliance with traffic laws. If mental illness causes a driver to run a red light or swerve into oncoming traffic, the question may be whether the person should have been driving at all. One reason for the reasonable person standard in negligence cases is to free civil trials from the complicated task of evaluating the specific defendant’s capacity to act, or not act, in compliance with his or her legal duty. Because it is an objective standard, the reasonable person rule may offer little help to a mentally ill defendant whose illness caused negligent behavior. Unlike a criminal trial, the defendant’s intent or lack of intent to behave a certain way usually doesn’t factor into the question of negligence.

Health professionals have no “duty to warn” in Nevada

When a potentially dangerous person causes injuries, questions may come up about whether other people who knew about the danger may bear some responsibility. Many states have laws governing the duty of health professionals to warn others about risks posed by a potentially violent, mentally ill patient. In some states, like California, psychotherapists are obligated to warn people who may be threatened by a patient. But Nevada has no such rule. Absent a rule requiring such disclosures, medical professionals are bound by strict confidentiality rules that prohibit them from disclosing a patient’s mental health condition. Without a patient’s consent, a health care provider in Nevada can only disclose records to a patient’s next-of-kin, or to state investigators in limited circumstances. NRS 629.061. Significantly, a plaintiff in a civil lawsuit can’t demand health records unless the patient (or the patient’s representative) first raises the issue of mental health. The federal Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act, or HIPAA, also restricts when a healthcare provider can breach a patient’s confidentiality rights.

Consult with a personal injury lawyer

For over 45 years the law firm of Greenman Goldberg Raby Martinez has represented clients in the Las Vegas area in cases involving personal injury. If you have been injured by someone who suffers from mental illness, our attorneys can answer your legal questions. To speak to an attorney at no cost, please give us a call today at 702-388-4476. We can also be reached through our contacts page.