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Hospital not liable in ‘suicide-by-cop’ lawsuit

A Salisbury hospital cannot be held responsible for releasing a suicidal patient who goaded police into killing him later that night, the Court of Special Appeals has held.

The unanimous appellate panel upheld the dismissal of a wrongful death lawsuit against Peninsula Regional Medical Center filed by the family of Charles Williams Jr.

In its 3-0 decision, the appellate panel said mental health providers cannot be held liable under Maryland law for deciding not to involuntarily admit a patient so long as they acted in good faith and with reasonable grounds for their decision.

Williams’ family alleged that Peninsula Regional was negligent in failing to involuntarily admit him after he told doctors of his suicidal thoughts, hallucinations and belief that his ex-girlfriend had put a curse on him.

The family did not challenge the hospital’s good faith or the grounds for its decision, the Court of Special Appeals said. Instead, the dispute centered on the interpretation of the immunity provided by two state laws.

The Health-General Article and the Courts and Judicial Proceedings Article immunize hospitals from liability if their decision on a patient’s involuntary admission was made in good faith and based on reasonable grounds.

Williams’ family argued the immunity applies only when the hospital chooses to admit a patient; Peninsula Regional said the immunity applies regardless of whether the decision was to admit or not.

The Court of Special Appeals agreed with the hospital, saying a contrary ruling would compel doctors to admit patients involuntarily in all cases.

“Understanding the deep concern for patient rights and stringent requirements for involuntary admittance, it would lead to an absurd result if we were to interpret the immunity provision to only apply when someone is actually admitted,” Judge Robert A. Zarnoch wrote for the court. “Out of fear of liability, mental health professions might err on the side of admittance, instead of properly exercising their discretion and following the stringent requirements before taking away someone’s liberty.”

Michael J. Winkelman, the family’s attorney, said Friday that his “inclination” is to seek review by the Court of Appeals because Maryland’s top court has yet to consider the issue.

Winkelman, who said the decision whether to appeal rests with the family, added does not know if the high court would agree to hear the case.

“I never have confidence in predicting appellate decisions,” said Winkelman, of McCarthy & Winkelman LLP in Lanham.

Peninsula Regional’s attorney, John R. Penhallegon, said an emailed statement that that the hospital is “very pleased” with the decision.

“It is a correct analysis of the law and the facts of this case, just as previously decided by the trial court,” added Penhallegon, of Cornblatt, Bennett, Penhallegon & Roberson P.A. in Towson.

Williams’ mother, Gineene Williams, took him to Peninsula Regional on April 20, 2009, out of concern for his suicidal thoughts and hallucinations, according to the appellate panel’s opinion.

Doctors who examined Williams found him to be alert and cooperative as he spoke of killing himself, talking with God, his ex-girlfriend’s curse and of going blind upon seeing a text message from her.

The doctors diagnosed Williams — who refused to discuss being admitted — with insomnia, fatigue and bizarre behavior. They prescribed anti-insomnia medicine, told his mother to remove guns from his house, follow up with a clinic the next day and return to the hospital if the symptoms became worse, the opinion stated.

Williams left the hospital and, later that day, broke into a house shortly before midnight. A resident called police, who arrived to find Williams in the front yard, holding a knife to his own throat and telling them to “shoot me, I want to die.”

Williams rejected the officers’ demand that he drop the knife and, instead, charged at them. The officers shot and killed Williams.

The family filed suit against Peninsula Regional in February 2011 in Wicomico County Circuit Court. The hospital moved for dismissal, saying the immunity provisions applied to the decision not to involuntarily admit Williams.

On March 27, 2012, Judge W. Newton Jackson III granted the motion, and the family sought review by the Court of Special Appeals, which affirmed.

“In our view, the purpose of the immunity statute at issue in this case is to protect the discretionary nature of the evaluation so that the medical professionals can be guided by their medical judgment and not the fear of liability,” Zarnoch wrote in the opinion published Thursday. “To do so, the statute must protect those who decide to involuntarily commit a patient as well as those who decide not to involuntarily commit a patient.”

Zarnoch

WHAT THE COURT HELD

Case:

Gineene Williams et al. v. Peninsula Regional Medical Center et al., CSA No. 0284, September Term 2012. Reported. Opinion by Zarnoch, J. Argued April 2, 2013. Filed Sept. 5, 2013.

Issue:

Did the judge properly dismiss a wrongful-death action for failure to allege that the hospital did not act in good faith or with reasonable grounds when it chose not to admit the patient involuntarily?

Holding:

Yes, affirmed. Absent such allegations, state law provides immunity against negligence suits based on involuntary commitment decisions. The immunity applies whether the decision is for or against involuntary commitment, so that doctors can be guided by their medical judgment and not the fear of liability.

Counsel:

Michael J. Winkelman for appellants; John R. Penhallegon and Curtis H. Booth for appellees.

RecordFax # 13-0905-00 (22 pages)