New Court Ruling Extends Statutory Immunity for Psychiatrists, Emergency Physicians, and Other Health Care Providers

The Maryland Court of Appeals recently decided a case that extends statutory immunity to a health care provider who evaluates, but in good faith decides not to admit, a patient for involuntary psychiatric care.

The case, Williams v. Peninsula Reg’l Med. Ctr., involved a mother who brought her son to the emergency room for evaluation of his suicidal ideation, auditory and visual hallucinations, and persistent delusions.  The son also had several cut marks on his arms.

The health care providers evaluated the son, diagnosed him with insomnia, fatigue, and bizarre behavior, and discharged him to his mother’s care.

After leaving the hospital, the son ran away from his mother and broke into a nearby residence.  When the son wielded a knife and charged toward the police officers who had arrived on the scene, he was fatally shot.

The mother and several other individuals filed a wrongful death and survivorship action alleging that the health care providers and hospital were negligent by not admitting the son for involuntary psychiatric treatment.

The defendants filed a motion to dismiss the lawsuit on the grounds that, under Maryland law, the health care providers were statutorily immune from liability because they had acted reasonably and in good faith in evaluating and deciding not to admit the son for involuntary treatment.  The plaintiffs countered that Maryland law only grants statutory immunity to health care providers who involuntarily admit, not discharge, a patient.

The trial court granted the defendants’ motion to dismiss the case, and both the Maryland Court of Special Appeals and the Maryland Court of Appeals affirmed that decision.

In deciding the case, the Maryland Court of Appeals closely examined the plain language of the immunity clauses in Section 10-618 of the Health-General Article and Section 5-623 of the Courts and Judicial Proceedings Article of the Maryland Code.

The Court noted that Section 10-618 of the Health-General Article contains specific conditions which must be met before a health care provider may involuntarily admit a patient.  The Court concluded that both the clear language of the statute, and the fact that it contains specific admission criteria, indicate a legislative intent to extend statutory immunity not only to a health care provider who involuntarily admits a patient, but also to one who decides against admission.

In further support of its decision, the Court explained that the legislature’s purpose in enacting the law was to prevent excessive institutionalization and protect individuals from the unnecessary loss of personal freedom that results from involuntary commitment.  If it were to apply statutory immunity only in cases in which a health care provider involuntarily admitted a patient, it would run contrary to that legislative intent by creating a perverse incentive for health care providers to admit patients involuntarily.

Overall, the Court’s new decision will reduce some of the legal risk associated with discharging a patient who presents for possible involuntary admission, but precisely what impact it will have on health care decision-making remains to be seen.

For more information about this case, wrongful death, or personal injury damages, contact Greg Garrett at 410.752.9767 or email.

This alert has been prepared by Tydings for informational purposes only and does not constitute legal advice.