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Maryland Court Considers Whether Statutory Immunity Applies to Mental Health Care Provider in Wrongful Death Action

When a person’s death was caused by negligence, the surviving family members may bring a Maryland wrongful death action against the responsible party.  In some cases, however, the law grants immunity to certain people and entities.  In a July 24, 2020 decision, the Court of Special Appeals of Maryland considered whether the defendant, a mental health care provider, was statutorily immune from liability with respect to the plaintiffs’ wrongful death suit.

The plaintiffs in the case were the family of a thirteen-year-old child who was shot and killed by a psychiatric patient who had absconded from a mental health care center.  The patient had been admitted to the psychiatric unit of the hospital after his arrest for armed robbery, fleeing the scene, and engaging in a stand-off with police.  Armed law enforcement officers were not allowed in the area of the hospital where the patient was being treated, although the hospital was notified that the patient would be arrested upon his discharge.  A few days after his admission to the center, the patient, still in a hospital gown, walked out of his room and left the building.  Eleven days later, the patient shot and killed the victim.

The plaintiffs brought a wrongful death and survival action against the center and other defendants, alleging that they were negligent in failing to prevent the patient from leaving the hospital eleven days prior to the shooting.  The center argued that as a mental health care provider, it is immune from civil liability for failing to provide protection from a patient’s violent behavior.  The circuit court agreed and dismissed the claims, and the plaintiffs filed the instant appeal.

Under Maryland law, a mental health care provider is generally immune from civil liability for failing to predict, warn of, or take precautions to protect others from a patient’s violent behavior, unless (1) the mental health care provider knew of the patient’s propensity for violence, and (2) the patient indicated to the provider, by speech, conduct, or writing, of their intent to inflict imminent physical injury upon a specific victim.  As the party alleging negligence against a mental health care provider, the plaintiffs had the burden to establish that the two elements were present.

On appeal, the court noted that the patient’s violence previously was directed at himself.  Even when assuming, for the sake of the plaintiff’s argument, that the center knew of the patient’s propensity for violence, the appeals court found no evidence in the record that the patient had ever indicated to the center that he intended to inflict imminent injury upon the victim specifically, or anyone else.  As such, the court held that the plaintiffs could not satisfy the conditions necessary to overcome health care provider immunity.

If you are seeking legal advice after the death of a loved one, the personal injury attorneys at Foran & Foran can assist you.  We represent plaintiffs in wrongful death claims, personal injury actions, medical malpractice cases, and many other lawsuits against careless individuals and businesses.  To discuss an accident or injury with one of our skilled attorneys, contact Foran & Foran online or by phone at (301) 441-2022 and request a free legal consultation.

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