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Holding Doctors Responsible—Maryland’s Highest Appellate Court Considers Physician Immunity For Not Involuntarily Committing a Patient

Posted on behalf of Goldberg Finnegan, LLC on Oct 28, 2014 in Medical Malpractice

justice sign on a courthouseOn April 20, 2009, Ginneene Williams took her son, Charles Williams, Jr., to Peninsula Regional Medical Center (PRMC). Her son had been acting strangely, complaining of suicidal thoughts, hearing voices, and delusional beliefs about being under the spell of a Wiccan curse. The treating physicians at PRMC refused to involuntarily admit Mr. Williams for psychiatric care, and sent him home with a sleeping pill and instructions to call if symptoms got any worse.

That night, Mr. Williams continued acting strangely while at a restaurant, and later broke into a Salisbury, Maryland home. When police were called to the scene, Mr. Williams charged at them with a knife, yelling for police to shoot him. The Salisbury police shot Mr. Williams 15 times, killing him.

After his death, Mr. Williams family filed a wrongful death lawsuit against PRMC and the doctors who refused to involuntarily commit him. The family believes that had Mr. Williams been involuntarily committed, he could have received treatment and would be alive today.

Can PRMC or the treating physicians who refused to admit Mr. Williams after his strange behavior be held responsible for his death? The decision is now up to Maryland's highest court.

When Does A Doctor Have This Immunity?

The case of Ginneene Williams vs. Peninsula Regional Medical Center is currently pending in front of the Maryland Court of Appeals. The justices heard oral arguments this month, and will soon decide if the states involuntary admission statute provides immunity to health care providers who evaluate an individual and decide to not involuntarily admit the patient to psychiatric care.  

Maryland's immunity statute says that anyone who involuntarily commits a patient to a psychiatric treatment facility is not legally responsible for lawsuits stemming from that commitment. Since involuntary commitment is a major deprivation of a patients freedom, this statute allows doctors to commit a person who might be dangerous to themselves or others without worrying about potential lawsuits for making the decision to commit the patient.

...a health care provider must act reasonably and should be held responsible when it is clear that a person needs psychiatric care and needed to be admitted.

PRMC argues that this immunity statute should also protect doctors and hospitals who refuse to involuntarily commit a patient, even if that decision leads to disastrous consequences.  The Williams family believes that PRMC was negligent in its decision not to admit Mr. Williams, and argues that the immunity statute doesn't extend to decisions not to admit a patient.

Observers on both sides are watching this case for its potential impact on medical malpractice law. Supporters of the hospital have argued that the Williams interpretation of the statute would force doctors and hospitals to admit nearly everyone rather than face liability for their decision not to admit. The Williams family, however, believes that a health care provider must act reasonably and should be held responsible when it is clear that a person needs psychiatric care and needed to be admitted.

A decision from the Maryland Supreme Court is expected within the next six months. If you or your family has been injured by medical malpractice, you deserve experienced legal representation who will fight for your rights. Contact Goldberg Finnegan and learn more about your legal options today.

Call (888) 213-8140 or use our case evaluation form to have your malpractice claim reviewed for free.

 

Sources: http://www.mdcourts.gov/opinions/cosa/2013/0284s12.pdf

http://www.delmarvanow.com/story/news/local/maryland/2014/10/10/prmc-lawsuit/17045239/

 

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