COA: Hospitals not entitled to summary judgment in mental-heath slaying case

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The Court of Appeals of Indiana has affirmed the denial of summary judgment for several hospital defendants sued by a woman whose husband was murdered by their mentally ill grandson soon after he was discharged.

Betty Miller in 2018 sued several Community Health physicians and entities for negligently treating her mentally ill grandson, Zachary Miller. Zachary arrived at Community Howard Regional Health Hospital’s emergency room and requested admission for his mental illness and dangerous propensities, but he was treated and discharged.

Zachary, who had been treated at least five times over a month for serious mental health issues, upon discharge from Community Howard killed Betty’s husband, John Allen Miller.

Indiana Supreme Court justices in October reversed the denial of Betty Miller’s claim against the hospitals, remanding for reconsideration of her motion to amend under Indiana Trial Rule 15(C).

In a separate interlocutory appeal, the Court of Appeals on Friday affirmed the denial of the Community defendants and Medical Associates LLP’s motions for summary judgment under Indiana Code § 34-30-16-1.

Mental health service providers under the statute do not have a duty to take action to protect others from a patient’s violent behavior unless the patient “has communicated to the provider of mental health services an actual threat of physical violence or other means of harm against a reasonably identifiable victim or victims” or “evidences conduct or makes statements indicating an imminent danger that the patient will use physical violence or use other means to cause serious personal injury or death to others.”

Although it agreed with the providers that Zachary did not communicate to them an “actual threat” against his grandfather, the appellate court disagreed with the defendants’ contention as to the “imminent danger” prong.

“… (T)he providers contend that because the phrases ‘evidences conduct’ and ‘makes statements’ are written in the present tense, each of Zachary’s hospital visits must be evaluated separately, and only what Zachary did and said ‘in the presence of’ or ‘to’ the providers during each specific visit can be considered in determining whether he posed an imminent danger of harm to others,” Judge Nancy Vaidik wrote.

“We disagree and hold that the imminent danger prong allows consideration of all Zachary’s conduct and statements during the month leading up to his attack on John. And because the providers do not dispute that the totality of Zachary’s conduct and statements over that period could lead a reasonable trier of fact to find an imminent danger existed, the providers are not entitled to summary judgment,” Vaidik wrote.

Turning first to the Community defendants and Medical Associates LLP, the appellate court concluded they weren’t entitled to summary judgment because they did not dispute that the totality of Zachary’s conduct and statements during the dates at issue could support a finding of imminent danger. It also disagreed with the assertion that they shouldn’t have to “re-warn” the family because they were already aware of the danger posed by Zachary.

As for physician assistant Timothy Held, the appellate court concluded that no physician assistant, including Held, is a mental health service provider for purposes of I.C. 34-30-16-1. Thus, it found he was not entitled to summary judgment under the statute or common law.

The case is Benjamin Coplan, M.D., et al. v. Betty Miller, Individually and as Personal Representative of the Estate of John Allen Miller, 21A-CT-406.

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