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Md. hospital free from $2.3M verdict over patient's suicide


By Elizabeth Alt | Jul 30, 2018

ANNAPOLIS, Md. (Legal Newsline) – In an opinion published July 12, the Maryland Court of Appeals reversed a judgment against a hospital in a woman’s lawsuit alleging her son committed suicide because the hospital and doctors released him early.

Judge Robert McDonald wrote the court opinion issued on July 12 with judges Mary Ellen Barbera, Clayton Greene Jr., Sally Adkins, Shirley Watts, Michele Hotten and Joseph Getty concurring.

“The Mental Health Law provides immunity from liability for those involved in the decision whether to admit an individual to a mental health facility against his or her will,” the opinion states.

In April 2011, 23-year-old Brandon Mackey attempted to commit suicide and was taken to Bon Secours Hospital and was under the treatment of Dr. Leroy Bell Jr. Two days before a scheduled hearing to decide whether to admit Mackey involuntarily or release him, Bell made the decision to release Mackey. The day after he was released, Mackey committed suicide.

Brandon’s mother, Patricia Chance, filed a suit in the Baltimore City Circuit Court over medical malpractice allegations against Bell, stating that Mackey would not have committed suicide if the proper course of action had been taken. Chance claimed wrongful death and stated Bell breached the standard of care by releasing her son early. Chance claimed that Bell had not spoken to Mackey’s family about his condition or obtained his prior medical records and failed to properly diagnose and implement treatment.

A jury awarded Chance $2.3 million, but the circuit court vacated the jury award “based in part on its understanding of the immunity statute” and found Chance’s expert testimony that Bell breached the standard of care was inconsistent with Maryland law.

Chance appealed to the Court of Special Appeals, which reversed the circuit court decision, finding that Chance’s expert testimony was sufficient and that Bell had breached the standard of care. The Court of Special appeals stated that when Bell released the patient, he was still showing “symptoms of responding to internal stimuli, as well as poor insight and poor judgment” and found that Mackey’s premature discharge “was a proximate cause of his death.”

Bell and Bon Secours filed an appeal. In the opinion, the Court of Appeals explained that the process of involuntarily admitting a person begins with applying to involuntarily admit the person and ends with the hearing to decide whether that person is released or admitted. 

McDonald stated that if during that process, a physician determined that the person does not meet the criteria and releases the individual, that decision is “immune from civil liability and cannot be the basis of a jury verdict for medical malpractice.”

McDonald stated that the plain language of the immunity statutes "extends immunity to every stage of the process,” noting that “immunity does not depend on the merits or reasonableness of a decision to admit – or to release – an individual proposed for involuntary admission, but on whether the process required by the statute was followed and whether the decision, regardless of its merits or reasonableness, was based on the statutory criteria.”

McDonald stated that Chance’s claim that Bell made the wrong decision and did so negligently is not enough to defeat statutory immunity. The court opinion further expounded that “a jury verdict of negligence may not be based upon an expert opinion that identifies such a decision as a breach of the standard of care.”

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