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No liability for good-faith release of involuntary patients: Md. high court

Decision marks victory for hospitals, staff

“An agency that receives a PIA request must conduct a search in good faith that is reasonably designed to capture all responsive records,” Judge Robert N. McDonald wrote for the Court of Appeals. (Capital News Service)

Court of Appeals Judge Robert N. McDonald: Immunity removes ‘the incentive that a mental health facility or its physicians might otherwise have to err on the side of curtailing an individual’s liberty in order to protect themselves from liability.’ (File photo.)

Neither a hospital nor its staff can be held civilly liable for the consequences of releasing an involuntarily admitted mental-health patient if they followed “in good faith” the statutory process for assessing admission criteria, Maryland’s top court unanimously has held.

In its immunity-from-liability decision, the Court of Appeals read broadly Section 10-617 of the Maryland Health General Article, which covers the involuntary admission of mentally ill patients for their own safety or that of others.

Immunity removes “the incentive that a mental health facility or its physicians might otherwise have to err on the side of curtailing an individual’s liberty in order to protect themselves from liability,” Judge Robert N. McDonald wrote for the court Thursday.

“This reading is consistent with the statute’s purpose – protecting individuals from loss of liberty due to an unwarranted involuntary commitment – because it allows for a physician to release an individual without fear of liability when the physician believes that the individual no longer meets the criteria that justify the restriction of that individual’s liberty,” McDonald added. “The assessment of those criteria need not be correct or done well. All that is required for immunity is that the assessment be done in good faith following the process and applying the criteria in the statute.”

In its decision, the high court said a Baltimore City Circuit Court judge correctly vacated a jury’s $2 million award to the mother of a mentally ill 24-year-old man who had killed himself in 2011 by jumping in front of a subway train a day after a psychiatrist at Bon Secours Hospital in Baltimore negligently concluded the patient – who had earlier attempted suicide — no longer qualified for involuntary admission.

The Court of Appeals held Dr. Leroy C. Bell Jr. immune from liability based on his good-faith conclusion – even if negligent – that Brandon Mackey no longer presented a threat to himself or others and was stable enough to go to a lower level of care and thus could no longer be involuntarily admitted under the Maryland statute.

“In this case … the complaint did not allege that bad faith – as opposed to poor judgment – resulted in Mr. Mackey’s release,” McDonald wrote. “Nor was there any serious contention that Dr. Bell or Bon Secours failed to follow the steps required by the statute. Rather the contention is that they made the wrong decision and did so negligently. But that would not be enough to defeat statutory immunity.”

David J. McManus Jr., attorney for the hospital and doctor, hailed the court’s ruling as protecting “the difficult decision whether to admit or release a psychiatric patient.”

“It’s always a difficult balance between protecting the patient from harm and protecting his civil liberties,” said McManus, of Baxter, Baker, Sidle, Conn & Jones P.A. in Baltimore. “The liability risk can influence decision making and skew it in ways that aren’t always helpful.”

With the high court’s decision, “the physician can make the decision on clinical parameters and not on liability risk,” McManus added.

Wes P. Henderson, attorney for Mackey’s mother, Patricia Chance, did not return a telephone message seeking comment on the court’s decision. Henderson is with Henderson Law LLC in Crofton.

In its ruling, the high court reversed the intermediate Court of Special Appeals unreported decision last year that the state law provided no immunity for what the jury deemed the doctor’s negligent conclusion.

The Court of Appeals rendered its decision in Leroy C. Bell Jr. and Bon Secours Hospital Baltimore Inc. v. Patricia Chance, individually and as personal representative of the estate of Brandon Mackey, No. 36, September Term 2017.

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