Mass. Hospital Fights Liability on Murderous Ex-Patient

BOSTON (CN) – Attorneys for a hospital whose schizophrenic patient murdered an old woman in front of her young grandchild clamored for immunity Thursday at a hearing of the high court in Massachusetts.

Three weeks before Tu Nguyen broke into the Dorchester home of his neighbor, Marry Miller, on Feb. 21, 2012, Steward Carney Hospital had released the 28-year-old just 11 days into what was supposed to be six-month civil commitment ordered by the Boston Municipal Court.

Attorneys for Miller’s family, including an 8-year-old granddaughter who watched the 72-year-old get stabbed to death, sued for wrongful death, but the Suffolk County Superior Court granted Carney Hospital immunity at summary judgment.

At a hearing of the Supreme Judicial Court this morning, the Miller family’s attorney argued that the hospital clearly failed to follow the court’s direction about evaluating the threat Nguyen posed to his community.

“We’re not saying that there’s an automatic cause of action for a violation of a court order,” Brockton-based attorney Chester Tennyson said. “The court order created a duty to act.”

Edward Mahoney, which represents hospital owner Steward Health Systems, insisted meanwhile that state law provides immunity from negligence claims to mental health professionals in situations like this.

If the law required hospitals to follow court orders without discretion, that would remove the hospital’s authority to assess a patient’s mental health and his potential for release.

“I think it would be legally incorrect if the superintendent does not have the capacity to make the judgment on the patient,” said Attorney Edward Mahoney. “If the super happens to be the person who is caring for that person, but that judgment has to be made by a qualified psychologist.”

Several justices challenged Mahoney, however, on his claim that a hospital enjoys immunity in the same fashion as individual health care providers.

“If the hospital hired someone incompetent and knew they were incompetent there would be some liability,” Justice Frank Gaziano said. “In your view what is the scope of duty?”

Justice Kafker added, “There’s got to be a duty of care owed. How much of that duty is gutted by this immunity provision?”

Justice David Lowy asked meanwhile if there should be consideration for hospitals that do not remove a doctor whose skills have declined over time.

“We also have to consider negligent retention,” he said. “Maybe the doctor was good when he was hired, but 15 years later he is not so good.”

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