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Hospital not at fault for executive's suicide

By Jessica M. Karmasek | Jun 29, 2011


DES MOINES, Iowa (Legal Newsline) - The Iowa Supreme Court last week upheld a jury verdict in favor of a hospital from which a successful business executive was discharged prior to committing suicide.

Elizabeth Von Linden, the head of consumer marketing at a large media company, took her life three weeks after she was discharged as an inpatient from defendant Mercy Hospital's psychiatric ward and six days after her outpatient office visit with Mercy's psychiatrist.

Her husband brought a wrongful death action against Mercy, alleging negligent care. Mercy raised defenses, including Von Linden's comparative negligence.

The Polk County District Court allowed the jury to decide their negligence. It found both Mercy and Von Linden negligent and allocated 90 percent of the total fault to Von Linden and 10 percent to Mercy, resulting in a defense verdict.

The state's high court was asked to determine if Iowa's Comparative Fault Act, or chapter 668, permits a jury to compare the fault of a noncustodial suicide victim with the negligence of the mental health professionals treating her.

The Court, in its majority opinion filed Friday, determined Von Linden owed a duty of self-care as an outpatient, and the district court committed no reversible error in allowing the jury to compare her fault.

Justice Thomas D. Waterman authored the Court's 34-page opinion.

First, the Court concluded that the estate failed to establish that Von Linden was so mentally incapacitated that she was incapable of being found negligent as a matter of law.

"At the time of her death, Von Linden was being treated as an outpatient and working at her executive-level job. Her suicide occurred three weeks after her discharge from the hospital and six days after her office visit with Dr. (Charles Scott) Jennisch," the Court wrote. "This scenario is unlike custodial cases involving the death or injury of an institutionalized patient incapable of self-care."

But the "fighting issue" is whether Von Linden's suicide can be considered as fault under chapter 668, the Court said.

In its opinion, the Court construed the state law to permit a comparative fault defense in medical malpractice actions arising from a noncustodial suicide.

"A reasonable legislator could conclude that mental health practitioners with a duty to prevent suicide should be denied a comparative fault defense when the patient kills herself. The legislature, however, created no such exceptions in the Iowa Comparative Fault Act, and it is not our prerogative to rewrite the statute to do so," the majority wrote.

As the Court points out, Von Linden was instructed when she was discharged from the hospital on June 8, 2003 to call the help center or return for care if her condition worsened.

When she met with Jennisch on June 23, 2003, he told her to call him if she had any problems or concerns before her next appointment in two weeks.

"She failed to call Dr. Jennisch or the help center or return for any further care over the next six days before her suicide on June 29. A reasonable jury could find Von Linden negligent in this regard," the Court wrote.

"Indeed, this jury found Von Linden 90 percent at fault."

The Court concluded that the district court correctly submitted the issue of Von Linden's comparative fault and did not abuse its discretion in declining to give the estate's "result of treatment" instruction.

From Legal Newsline: Reach Jessica Karmasek by e-mail at jessica@legalnewsline.com.

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