March 2000

Health Care E-lert - The case of Falk v. Southern Maryland Hospital, 03/06/00

2 min

THE FACTS: 21-year old patient in hospital's involuntary psychiatric unit strikes a nurse. Nurse falls over and knocks down 87-year old patient. Patient suffers broken hip, undergoes surgery and dies from surgery related complications.

CLAIM: Hospital and treating physician of 21-year old should be liable for the death of the elderly patient for failure to adequately supervise the 21-year old.

COURT'S DECISION: Hospital and treating physician are not liable.

COURT'S RATIONALE: Section 5-316 of the Courts and Judicial Proceedings is clear that a mental health provider or administrator is not liable for injury caused by his or her patient unless (1) the provider had actual knowledge of the patient's propensity for violence and (2) the patient indicated to the mental health provider that he or she intended to harm a specific person. In this case, the first requirement might have been met, but the second was not.

IMPORTANCE OF DECISION: The liability protection offered to physician and institutional providers of mental health services by Section 5-316 is meaningful. The fact that a patient is in the care of the provider will not on its own make the provider responsible for an injury caused by that patient. The injury must have been reasonably foreseeable to the provider.

When there is a reasonable forseeability, i.e. actual knowledge of a patient's propensity for violence and an indication that the patient intends to harm a specific person, the mental health provider will only secure protection from liability if he or she takes steps to predict, warn of, or take precautions against the patient's violent behavior.

For further information, please contact: John P. Sarbanes at 410.244.7754 or by e-mail.