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Williams v. Peninsula Regional Medical Center

Court of Special Appeals of Maryland

September 5, 2013

GINEENE WILLIAMS, ET AL.
v.
PENINSULA REGIONAL MEDICAL CENTER, ET AL.

Woodward, Zarnoch, Raker, Irma S. (Retired, Specially Assigned), JJ.

OPINION

Zarnoch, J.

In this case, members of the family of Charles Williams, Jr. (Gineene Williams, Patricia Gaines, Michelle Crippen, and Charles Williams, Sr.) (collectively, "the family members") appeal a judgment from the Circuit Court for Wicomico County in favor of appellees, Dr. Michael P. Murphy, nursing assistant George Stroop, and Peninsula Regional Medical Center ("PRMC") (collectively, "the health care providers"). Williams was killed by police officers after breaking into a home, obtaining a knife, entering the front yard, and eventually charging at police. The health care providers' role in this story occurred earlier in the day, when Williams' mother brought him to PRMC because of a concern over his mental state. The health care providers evaluated Williams, he said he did not want to be admitted to the medical center, and the health care providers decided not to involuntarily admit him.

The family members brought a wrongful death/survival action in the Circuit Court for Wicomico County.[1] They alleged that the health care providers were negligent in not admitting Williams to the medical center and that their negligence led to his death. In a two-step analysis, Judge W. Newton Jackson, III granted the health care providers' motion to dismiss. First, the court found that under Md. Code (1982, 2009 Repl. Vol.), Health-General Article ("H-G"), § 10-618, all health care providers are immune from any liability when they act in good faith and with reasonable grounds in deciding not to involuntarily admit an individual. Second, the court stated that the family members had not alleged in their complaint that the health care providers failed to act in good faith and with reasonable grounds in deciding not to admit Williams to PRMC involuntarily. The family members ask us to review whether the immunity statute applies to this case and whether their complaint failed to state a claim against the health care providers. We conclude that the immunity statute applies to health care providers who evaluate and decide not to involuntarily admit an individual. We further determine that a complaint that solely alleges negligence, such as the complaint in this case, is insufficient to overcome the immunity. We therefore affirm the circuit court's dismissal.

FACTS AND LEGAL PROCEEDINGS

Although the parties disagree sharply on the legal issues in this case, there is no dispute about the facts. On April 20, 2009, Williams' mother brought him to PRMC because she was concerned about his mental state. She was troubled by Williams' suicidal thoughts, his auditory and visual hallucinations, his belief that he was under a curse, his obsessive behavior, headaches, trouble sleeping, and generally unusual behavior.

At PRMC, Williams was examined and evaluated by, at least, Dr. Murphy and Stroop.[2] During these exams, Williams was alert, verbal, and cooperative in discussing his symptoms. He admitted that he was having auditory and visual hallucinations and suicidal thoughts. He told the health care providers that he was communicating with "the Lord, " that his ex-girlfriend had placed a curse on him, and that he suffered blindness when he looked at a text message sent from her while in the emergency room. The health care providers learned that Williams had cuts on the inside of his arms. Williams refused to discuss the possibility of inpatient care. The health care providers noted that he "appear[ed] to be minimizing any problems going on with him."

After evaluating Williams, the health care providers decided not to involuntarily admit Williams. He was diagnosed with insomnia, fatigue, and bizarre behavior. He was prescribed Ambien and his mother was advised to remove the firearms from the residence, follow up with Lower Shore Clinic the next day, and return to the hospital if the symptoms became worse. Williams was also told to "return here immediately if you feel you are going to harm yourself or anyone else."

After leaving PRMC, Williams left his mother and went to a restaurant with his children and their mother, Michelle Crippen. Williams' mother filled his prescription and took it to the restaurant. Williams left the restaurant with Crippen but, at some point, he asked her to pull the vehicle to the side of the road. He jumped out. Members of the police department saw him in Salisbury later in the day and noted that he was acting strange. At the time, he was not engaging in any activity that would have caused the police to detain him. But shortly before midnight he broke into a house. The resident saw him and called 9-1-1. When the police arrived, Williams was in the front yard wielding a knife. He said to the officers: "shoot me, fucking shoot me, somebody's going to die tonight." He held the knife to his throat and said: "I want you to shoot me, I want to die." The officers told Williams to drop the knife and surrender himself. He refused and charged at the officers. The officers shot Williams, but he persisted in his attack. The officers shot Williams 15 times and he died from the gunshot wounds.

Williams' family members initially brought a claim in the Health Care Alternative Dispute Resolution Office. They filed a statement of claim, a certificate of merit of a qualified expert, and two medical reports from two separate physicians. When this did not resolve the claim, the family members filed a complaint in the circuit court against the health care providers alleging negligence. PRMC and Stroop filed a motion to dismiss, which Dr. Murphy joined. The health care providers contended that H-G § 10-618 in conjunction with Md. Code (1974, 2006 Repl. Vol.), Courts and Judicial Proceedings Article ("CJP"), § 5-623(c)-(d) gave them immunity, and in the alternative, Williams' death was so remote in time and place so as not to be reasonably foreseeable as a matter of law. The circuit court granted the motion to dismiss, finding that the immunity statute applied to the health care providers' actions and that the family members had not alleged any facts to overcome the immunity. The family members timely appealed.

The rationale behind the court's decision and the contents of the family members' complaint will be discussed below as they relate to each question presented.

QUESTIONS PRESENTED

The family members present two questions for review, which we have reworded to properly capture the issues:[3]

1. Was the circuit court correct in interpreting Maryland's involuntary admission immunity statute, H-G §10-618, to apply to health care providers who evaluate an individual and decide to discharge the patient from psychiatric care?
2. Was the circuit court correct in finding the family members' complaint failed to allege facts that would overcome Maryland's involuntary admission immunity statute?

For reasons more fully explained below, we answer these questions in the health care providers' favor and uphold the decision below.[4]

STANDARD OF REVIEW

This Court reviews the grant of a motion to dismiss for failure to state a claim for which relief can be granted under a de novo standard. Clark v. Prince George's Cnty., 211 Md.App. 548, 557 (2013). "In reviewing the grant of a motion to dismiss, we must determine whether the complaint, on its face, discloses a legally sufficient cause of action. An appellate court should presume the truth of all well-pleaded facts in the complaint, along with any reasonable inferences derived therefrom." Id. (Citations and internal quotation marks omitted). Dismissal of the action is only warranted "if the allegations and permissible inferences, if true, would not afford relief to the plaintiff." Gomez v. Jackson, 198 Md.App. 87, 93 (2011) (Citations omitted).

This appeal also requires us to construe a Maryland statute. We interpret Maryland statutes without giving any deference to the circuit court's interpretation. See Davis v. Slater, 383 Md. 599, 604 (2004).

DISCUSSION

I. Interpretation of the Immunity Statute

At the outset, we are called upon to determine whether H-G § 10-618 controls the outcome of this case. The parties disagree on whether the statute applies to the health care providers' actions in deciding not to involuntarily admit Williams to PRMC. Thus, we embark on a journey of statutory construction. We have noted that many issues of statutory construction are resolvable on the basis of judicial consideration of three general factors: (1) text; (2) purpose; and (3) consequences. Town of Oxford v. Koste, 204 Md.App. 578, 585 (2012), aff'd, 431 Md. 14 (2013); Goss v. Estate of Jennings, 207 Md.App. 151, 169 (2012). In Goss, we said:

Text is the plain language of the relevant provision, typically given its ordinary meaning, viewed in context, considered in light of the whole statute and generally evaluated for ambiguity. Legislative purpose, either apparent from the text or gathered from external sources, often informs, if not controls, our reading of the statute. An examination of interpretive consequences, either as a comparison of the results of each proffered construction or as a principle of avoidance of an absurd or unreasonable reading grounds the court's interpretation in reality.

Id. at 169-70 (Citations and internal quotation marks omitted). This is a case where the text of the relevant ...


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