Last year a French psychiatrist was found guilty of involuntary homicide after failing to recognise the danger posed by a schizophrenic patient, who went on to kill the elderly partner of his grandmother. This judgment was the first of its kind in France and potentially sets a precedent for future cases.
The psychiatrist, Dr Daniele Canarelli, was sentenced to a one-year suspended sentence as the court found that she had committed the “grave error” of failing to recognise the public danger posed by her patient, Joel Gaillard.
Gaillard, 43, escaped from a hospital consultation with Dr Canarelli in February 2004 and 20 days later he carried out his killing. Gaillard was a paranoid schizophrenic, who had been seeing Dr Canarelli for four years; he had already been committed to a secure hospital on several occasions for a series of increasingly dangerous incidents.
The court found that Dr Canarelli should have requested that her patient be placed in a specialised medical unit or referred to another medical team, as one of her colleagues had suggested, and concluded that her refusal to do so equated to a form of “blindness”.
The SPEP, a union for French state psychiatrists, who backed Dr Canarelli during the trial, described the verdict as “worrying” as it risked scapegoating the profession over a complex case. They also argued that it could lead to the harsher treatment of patients as psychiatrists practise increasingly defensively.
The case of Daniele Canarelli raises serious questions as to how to balance the interests of patients, of psychiatrists, and the safety of the general public.