News

French psychiatrist is convicted of manslaughter after her patient kills an elderly man

BMJ 2012; 345 doi: http://dx.doi.org/10.1136/bmj.e8693 (Published 27 December 2012) Cite this as: BMJ 2012;345:e8693
  1. Clare Dyer
  1. 1BMJ

A French psychiatrist has been found guilty of manslaughter after a patient with paranoid schizophrenia hacked an elderly man to death, in the first case of its kind in France.

Danielle Canarelli, 58, was convicted of “involuntary homicide” and given a one year suspended prison sentence over the death of 83 year old Germain Trabuc in March 2004.

A court in Marseille said that Canarelli, who has 30 years’ experience, committed a “grave error” in failing to recognise the dangerousness of Joel Gaillard, who had been her patient for four years. He hacked Trabuc, his grandmother’s companion, to death with an axe 20 days after fleeing an appointment with Canarelli at Edouard Toulouse Hospital in Marseille.

The court said that the psychiatrist, who was also ordered to pay €8500 (£7000; $11 000) to the victim’s two sons, had exhibited a form of “blindness” in refusing to recommend that Gaillard be sent to a specialist unit, as one of her colleagues had suggested. He had previously been committed to a secure hospital several times after dangerous incidents.

Trabuc’s son Michel told the newspaper Le Dauphiné Liberé that he had pursued the case against Canarelli “to protect the memory of my father” after Gaillard was found not to be criminally responsible and the case against him dismissed. He said that “it was like saying nothing had happened, that we’ll forget someone had died.”

Canarelli was backed by French psychiatrists’ professional organisations, which said that she had done nothing medically wrong and that her prosecution had caused the profession great concern.

Her lawyer, Sylvain Pontier, who said that she was likely to appeal, added that the case would have repercussions for the treatment of mentally ill people. “If a psychiatrist lives in fear of being sentenced, it will have very real consequences and probably lead to harsher treatment of patients,” he said.

In the United Kingdom no psychiatrist has stood trial for manslaughter over a killing by a patient, but the law provides for a statutory inquiry every time a psychiatric patient kills.

These inquiries typically find a background of failures in communication between hospitals and community, housing, and social services. Psychiatrists are sometimes criticised by the inquiry and in the media and in some cases have been sacked or threatened with losing their jobs and have had to resort to the courts to retain them.

Notes

Cite this as: BMJ 2012;345:e8693