As we have discussed in an earlier post, a medical professional owes no duty to a third person arising from any claimed special relationship between the medical professional and a patient. However, when the health care professional is a mental health professional, the situation is entirely different. This particular issue was raised when a lawsuit was filed against mental health professionals claiming that they owed a duty to warn a potential victim of their patient.
Jason Potter had a longstanding history of mental health issues and was hospitalized at various times in 1997-1998. At one particular hospitalization it was noted by professionals that he was disorganized, confused and depressed. Mr. Potter was admitted to the hospital as a safety precaution. It should be noted that this was a voluntary admission- meaning he had the capacity to check himself out. During his stay doctors indicated that Mr. Potter was paranoid and experiencing racing thoughts. Mr. Potter checked himself out after a two day stay at the hospital, against his doctors advice who recommended a longer stay. Mr. Potter’s medical records indicated that he was impulsive and a noncompliance risk but not a danger to himself.
A licensed clinical social worker, Jean Semexant, performed an evaluation of Mr. Potter a day after his release. Mr. Potter attended this meeting with his mother. Semexant knew that Mr. Potter resided with his mother and stepfather, and that the stepfather had recently been released from jail for violating an abuse prevention order. Medical records indicate that Mr. Potter denied having any suicidal thoughts or homicidal ideations. Semexant did not intend to hospitalize Mr. Potter as a result. Following this evaluation, Mr. Potter returned to his home where he brutally stabbed his mother and stepfather to death. He was tried for two counts of murder and was found guilty by reason of insanity.
The executrix of the estate of the step father, Richard Sheehan, brought a wrongful death claim against the board certified psychiatrist and two licensed clinical social workers alleging that the Defendants were negligent in failing to hospitalize Mr. Potter or to warn the stepfather of his dangerous propensities. The court, relying on a statute put forward by the legislature, held that there are limited circumstances in which a licensed mental health professional has a duty to warn a potential victim. For that duty to exist, a plaintiff must show:
that the patient has a history of physical violence which is known to the professional;
the professional has a reasonable basis to believe that there is a clear and present danger the patient will attempt to kill of inflict serious bodily injury;
and the potential victim is reasonably identified.
If these elements are met, a cause of action against a mental health professional will only exist if the professional fails to take reasonable precautions to prevent such an event. While the court did articulate a standard to follow, it ultimately held that the Defendants lacked reasonable basis to believe that Mr. Potter posed a clear and present danger to attempt to kill or inflict serious bodily injury. Additionally, the court held that the patient’s stepfather was not a reasonably identified victim. Ultimately the case was dismissed.
To learn more of the case referenced above, please read Shea v. Caritas Carney Hospital, Inc. If you believe you have a wrongful death case, our office can help you. To schedule a free consultation with lawyer Daniel Cappetta, call our office today at (508) 969-9505 or fill out or contact form available on the right side of this page.