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Duties of Hospitals to Third Parties in Pennsylvania

In a recent case a father and daughter appealed from an order dismissing their professional negligence complaint against a hospital. The case arose when an adult woman (Dawn Martin) was brought to the hospital after a suicide attempt in 2012. She got there at 9:27 and was triaged promptly. She was voluntarily committed under the Mental Health Procedures Act. About 1 1/2 hours later, she left the Hospital without being examined by a doctor or receiving any meaningful supervision. She walked past the nursing station through the emergency discharge, into a parking lot and wooded area.

Around the same time, a man and his daughter were traveling by. A vehicle in front of their vehicle swerved and the man saw Martin lying in the road. He hit the brakes, but his car hit the woman who died before the emergency medical services were able to come.

The father and daughter filed a professional negligence lawsuit against the hospital for emotional distress damages. They argued that the hospital was grossly negligent in failing to give immediate psychiatric treatment to Martin and failing to prevent her from leaving. They also argued that the lack of care was the direct and proximate cause of their emotional distress injuries.

The hospital made preliminary objections that the plaintiffs didn’t state a claim on which relief could be granted and improper venue. The trial court held a hearing and concluded that the hospital didn’t owe the plaintiffs in this situation a duty of care. It also sustained the objections and dismissed the complaint.

The plaintiffs appealed. On appeal, the father and daughter argued that there was a duty of care owed to them. The appellate court affirmed the lower court’s decision.

On appeal, the plaintiffs challenged the order dismissing their complaint on four grounds. They argued they were owed a statutory duty of care under the Mental Health Procedures Act. They also claimed the hospital owed them a duty because they assumed that duty by starting to give care to Martin. They argued that the hospital owed them a duty under these particular circumstances based on a five-factor test in a Pennsylvania Supreme Court decision. Finally, they argued that the trial court took over the role of the jury by considering Martin’s own conduct a superseding cause of their injuries.

The appellate court explained that the lower court had essentially ordered a demurrer—this is a motion brought to dismiss a plaintiff’s complaint for failure to state a claim. This type of motion is disfavored. The court explained that a plaintiff must show (1) defendant’s duty to conform to a certain standard of conduct, (2) the defendant breached the duty, (3) causation, and (4) actual damages.

The court explained that the mental health care statute focuses on immunity healthcare professionals for treatment decisions for patients. It does permit a plaintiff to overcome an immunity bar for willful misconduct or gross negligence, it doesn’t create a statutory duty to third parties in cases like these. It contemplates that cases in which a grossly negligent treatment decision has been made, which leads to foreseeable consequences. In this case, Martin was voluntarily committed and she left the hospital before treatment.

The court also explained that the plaintiffs were not foreseeable victims. The five-factor test for duty in a particular case includes a consideration of (1) relationship between parties, (2) social utility of a particular conduct, (3) nature of risk imposed and foreseeability of harm, (4) consequences of imposing duty upon an actor and (5) public interest in the proposed solution. In this case, the court found that the plaintiffs did not have a close enough relationship to the situation and the primary duty of hospitals is to its patients, not to protect the public from a patient who voluntarily leaves. It also found that the patient’s conduct was not foreseeable. Accordingly, it affirmed the lower court.

An experienced Pennsylvania personal injury attorney can evaluate the facts of your particular case if you are hurt because of an entity’s negligence and bring a lawsuit on your behalf if appropriate. Contact the attorneys at Needle Law Firm at 570-344-1266 or via our online form for a free consultation.

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