Maryland's Court of Appeals Holds Healthcare Providers' Immunity Extends to Decisions Not to Involuntarily Commit

November 24, 2014 05:08 PM

In a case described as one of the most significant of the current Term, Maryland's Court of Appeals in an opinion issued on November 21 affirmed a dismissal on immunity grounds in favor of defendants represented by IADC member John R. Penhallegon. The State's highest court held that a statute affording health care providers immunity from liability for good faith decisions to involuntarily admit mentally ill persons also provides immunity from suit for decisions not to admit.

Plaintiffs' decedent presented to the emergency room of Mr. Penhallegon's hospital client complaining of suicidal ideation and hallucinations. He refused voluntary psychiatric admission. Rather than pursue involuntary admission the providers discharged the patient in the care of his mother with a prescription for a sleep aid, asking that she take all guns away, and the patient's promise to return if he felt he would harm himself or others. Soon after discharge the patient absconded from his mother and later that night broke into a private home. The homeowner called the police, who on arrival confronted the decedent outside the residence. The decedent held a knife to his throat and when told to drop his weapon charged at the police demanding they shoot him. The officers obliged, with fifteen shots striking the victim and killing him.

A wrongful death suit was filed by surviving family members alleging that the hospital and its emergency department negligently failed to involuntarily admit the patient for psychiatric care, thereby causing his death later that night via "suicide by cop." The defendants moved to dismiss on the grounds that a Maryland statute provides for immunity from suit for good faith decisions to involuntarily admit, and the statute's reach must extend to the converse as well, a good faith decision not to admit one involuntarily with the resulting deprivation of liberty. The trial court granted the motion to dismiss, and Maryland's intermediate appellate court affirmed.

The Court of Appeals granted certiorari. In its opinion, the Court unanimously held that the public policy of extending immunity to good faith evaluations in the involuntary commitment context requires that immunity from suit extend to both admission and non-admission decisions. To hold otherwise would create a perverse incentive for providers to admit so as to enjoy immunity, a result contrary to the rights of persons to be free from unreasonable intrusions on their personal liberty. The dismissal in favor of the defendants was affirmed.

The case is Williams v. Peninsula Regional Medical Center,, Maryland Court of Appeals No. 18, September Term 2014.

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