Massachusetts Court Holds That Hospital Owed No Duty to Stabbing Victim After Mental Health Patient Was Released

The underlying premise of the body of law known as “negligence” is that those who breach a duty to those whom such a duty is owed should be held financially liable for the foreseeable consequences of their action (or inaction, as the case may be).

This means that, in a Massachusetts wrongful death lawsuit, the plaintiff has the duty of proving all four elements of negligence (duty, breach of duty, damages, and causation) by a preponderance of the evidence.

Typically, the arguments at trial revolve around whether a duty was breached and, if so, how money the plaintiff should be awarded for his or her losses. However, sometimes the parties disagree as to whether the defendant owed a legal duty to the plaintiff under the circumstances of the case. In such a situation, it is up to the courts to decide.

Facts of the Case

In a recent case decided by the Supreme Judicial Court of Massachusetts (which granted an application for direct appellate review from the trial court), the plaintiff was the personal representative of the estate of a woman who was stabbed to death in February 21, 2012, by a man who had recently been released from an involuntary psychiatric commitment by the defendant hospital. The perpetrator’s commitment to the hospital had been ordered by a municipal court judge for a period “not to exceed six months or until there [was] no longer a likelihood of serious harm by reason of mental illness, whichever period [was] shorter…”

In her wrongful death action, the plaintiff alleged that the defendant was liable for gross negligence; willful, wanton, and reckless conduct; and conscious pain and suffering. The plaintiff also sought compensation on behalf of her granddaughter (the victim’s child), who also present in the victim’s apartment at the time of the stabbing, asserting claims for reckless and/or grossly negligent infliction of emotional distress, consequential damages for loss of consortium, and expenses for mental health care.

The trial court granted summary judgment to the defendant, holding that it owed no duty of care to the plaintiff.

Decision of the Appellate Court

The court affirmed the lower tribunal’s dismissal of the case on summary judgment. Although the plaintiff argued that hospital should not have released the perpetrator because the treating physician’s clinical judgment about the risk posed by the perpetrator was inaccurate and incorrect and that the hospital retained control over him, the appellate court found that the hospital had no role in the determination that the perpetrator was in a suitable condition to be released.

The hospital’s duty to hold the perpetrator followed directly from the order of commitment. Thus, when the perpetrator’s treating mental health professional ordered his release, the hospital no longer had control of the perpetrator. Absent a special relationship between the parties, the hospital did not have a duty to control the perpetrator after his release.

Speak to a Lawyer About Your Case

Losing a loved one is hard. It is even more so when the loved one’s death was preventable. If you have suffered the loss of a family member and believe that someone else should be held liable, you should talk to a lawyer as soon as possible. At the Law Offices of John C. Manoog, III, we handle wrongful death claims on behalf of those left behind after accidents or other events caused by an individual, business, or government’s act of negligence or recklessness. Call us at 888-262-6664 for an appointment. We have offices in Plymouth and Hyannis, and we serve all of the Cape Cod area.

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