It's No Surprise Psychotherapist Lawsuits Are On The Rise

A recent issue of The National Law Journal contained an article addressing the rise in psychotherapist's fear of lawsuits against them.

The article states, “Legal and health care experts say therapists today face a greater risk of being sued than ever before.”

The basis for the rise in civil actions against psychotherapists is the observable fact that so many of them are either plain incompetent or are outright criminals who harm their patients instead of helping them.

Additionally, the number of administrative complaints against therapists has increased significantly in recent years.  For instance, the California Board of Behavioral Sciences—which licenses marriage and family therapists and counselors—averages between 600 and 700 complaints a year.

(Indeed, CCHR International has noted this increase and has correspondingly filed twice as many administrative complaints in the first half of 2006 as it did in all of 2005.)

Psychotherapists' fear is warranted.

But, in addition to a fear of lawsuits is the increase in the number of suits themselves.  “The number of complaints (against psychotherapists) has skyrocketed,” said attorney O. Brandt Caudill, who is currently representing therapists in about 30 civil suits.  What's more, Caudill noted a change in the character of the complaints: Suits against psychotherapists have generally been for sexual misconduct or failure to prevent suicide.  Now they are being sued for not helping people get better or for engaging patients in business relationships that go bad.

Suits have also been filed for marriages that failed because of therapy or because the therapist had an affair with one or the other marriage partner.

In June 2003, Carol Ikerman of Little Rock, Arkansas filed suit against psychiatrist James "Kurt" Dilday and his company for breach of contract after her son, 39-year-old James Wesley Emmet, died of a self-inflicted gunshot wound in March 2002.  Ikerman's suit states that Dilday treated the married father of two for depression, panic disorder and alcohol and drug abuse for 20 months before his death.  The suit claims Dilday improperly prescribed medications, including Xanax and Oxycontin, to Emmet, failed to offer treatments that could have prevented suicide and broke the physician-patient bond of trust by billing Emmet for 100 office visits he didn't make.  This case is still pending.

In August 2004, the family of an emotionally disturbed woman who killed herself sued the woman's psychologist for wrongful death.  The patient, Donna Roth, had become romantically involved with the attorney handling her divorce—an affair encouraged and condoned by psychologist Darlene Williams as being "good for Ms. Roth's emotional health."  Ms. Roth became despondent when she realized that the attorney was not going to leave his wife and that she had been taken advantage of emotionally and financially.  She called the attorney threatening suicide.  The attorney contacted psychologist Williams who did not take the necessary steps to prevent the suicide, which occurred by overdose.

As of April 2005, Chicago attorney Richard Lee Stavins is representing three of four separate plaintiffs in negligence suits against psychologist Leticia Libman and Delnor-Community Hospital.  The plaintiffs allege that Libman practiced witchcraft and her "therapy"—encouraging patients to speak with dead people, asking for a sample of a patient's spouse's DNA so she could "cast a spell"—caused a failed marriage, emotional instability and an attempted suicide.  Plaintiffs are seeking from $50,000 to $1 million in damages.

In April 2005 Ontario psychiatrist Rodica Stefaniu became the first psychiatrist in Canada to be held civilly responsible for a murder committed by a patient she treated.  The judgment awarded more than $170,000 to the two daughters and common-law spouse of Roslyn Knipe, who was murdered by the patient (her brother), who thought she was the devil.  A jury found that Stefaniu was negligent because she didn't meet the standard of care required by a general psychiatrist and because it was "reasonably foreseeable" that her patient would cause serious bodily harm to others.

On October 26, 2005, a Pennsylvania jury found psychiatrist Stephen Powers guilty of psychiatric malpractice, awarding plaintiff Rose Gray $330,000 in damages.  Gray maintained that Powers used questionable techniques that made her believe she was being abused by devil worshippers.  Powers' use of this "technique," known as "repressed memory syndrome," led Gray to a 10-year ordeal from which she will never fully recover.  According to trial testimony, Gray's first two years of therapy with Powers went well.  The psychiatrist then attended a meeting about multiple-personality disorder and repressed memories and began suggesting to Gray that she had repressed memories of being in a cult that killed and ate babies.  She came to believe it and came to believe her own husband and mother were in the cult as well.  Powers encouraged her to cut off contact with them, which she did, including getting a divorce from her husband.  Repressed memory syndrome and satanic abuse was a groundless psychiatric fad that swept the nation in the late 1980s and early 1990s, doing untold damage to patients.  It has been the basis of many lawsuits, most all of them won by the plaintiff.

On April 27, 2006, an Illinois man filed a malpractice suit against his former marriage counselor for allegedly sleeping with his former wife.  Scott Buetow filed the lawsuit against marriage counselor Dan Blair and the Arbor Counseling Center, seeking more than $200,000 in damages.  Buetow began seeing Blair in April 2004, and his wife soon joined him in the sessions for joint counseling, according to the lawsuit.  Buetow alleges that Blair then started a romantic relationship with the wife. "He had Scott confide in him about his marital woes and then used that against him," said Buetow's attorney, Hans Mast.  The couple's marriage ended in February 2006.


  • If you are conducting a civil or criminal prosecution in which the defendant is a psychiatrist, psychologist or other psychotherapist, contact CCHR for assistance in locating expert witnesses and for other assistance in your case.

  • If you are dealing with reluctant witnesses or plaintiffs in a case against a psychotherapist, CCHR can provide assistance, support and act as a stabilizing influence.  Contact CCHR.

  • Health insurance providers should conduct searching reviews of the reimbursement records of psychiatrists, psychologists and other therapists who have been convicted of sex crimes against patients to uncover instances of billing for "treatment" when sex took place.

  • If you know someone who has been abused or betrayed by their psychotherapist, encourage them to contact an attorney or CCHR.  We can assist them with complaints and with locating legal representation.

  • Visit CCHR's new museum in Los Angeles, "Psychiatry: An Industry of Death" to find out the history of psychiatry.

Go to Articles