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High court to review post-suicide verdict

Maryland’s top court will consider whether a Salisbury hospital can be held liable for releasing a suicidal patient who goaded police into killing him later that night.

The Court of Appeals said this month that it will review lower-court rulings that dismissed a wrongful-death lawsuit against Peninsula Regional Medical Center filed by the family of Charles Williams Jr.

In September, the intermediate Court of Special Appeals upheld a trial judge’s dismissal of the lawsuit, saying 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 alleges that Peninsula Regional was negligent in failing to involuntarily admit him after he told doctors of his suicidal thoughts, his hallucinations and his belief that his ex-girlfriend had put a curse on him.

In its high court appeal, the family does not challenge the hospital’s good faith or the grounds for its decision. Instead, the family disputes the lower courts’ interpretation of the immunity afforded to mental health providers under Section 10-618 of the Maryland Health-General Article.

The statutory provision immunizes hospitals from liability if a decision on a patient’s involuntary admission was made in good faith and based on reasonable grounds.

Williams’ family argues in its appeal that the immunity applies only when the hospital chooses to admit a patient. Peninsula Regional counters that the immunity applies regardless of whether the decision was to admit or not.

The Court of Appeals is expected to hear arguments in the case in October or November and render its decision by Aug. 31, 2015, according to the court’s clerk’s office. The case is Williams v. Peninsula Regional Medical Center, No. 18 Sept. Term 2014.

The hospital’s argument has won so far, as the Court of Special Appeals said the family’s narrow interpretation of the law 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 intermediate court in its reported Sept. 5 decision.

“Out of fear of liability, mental health professionals might err on the side of admittance, instead of properly exercising their discretion and following the stringent requirements before taking away someone’s liberty.”

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 Court of Special Appeals’ opinion.

Doctors who examined him found him 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 him.

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.

“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.”

The family then appealed to the high court.

Neither Michael J. Winkelman, the family’s attorney, nor the hospital’s lawyer, John R. Penhallegon, returned telephone messages seeking comment Monday.

Winkelman is with McCarthy & Winkelman LLP in Lanham. Penhallegon is with Cornblatt, Bennett, Penhallegon & Roberson P.A. in Towson.