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Williams v. Peninsula Regional Medical Center

Court of Appeals of Maryland

November 21, 2014

GINEENE WILLIAMS, etc., et al.
v.
PENINSULA REGIONAL MEDICAL CENTER, et al.

Argued: 10/3/2014.

Circuit Court for Wicomico County Case No.: 22-C-11-000198.

Barbera, C.J., Harrell, Battaglia, Greene, Adkins, McDonaldm, Watts, JJ.

OPINION

ADKINS, J.

In this tragic case, a young man, age 34, was brought to a hospital emergency room suffering from suicidal ideation and auditory and visual hallucinations. After evaluating him, health care providers decided not to admit him for psychiatric treatment and discharged him to the care of his mother. That same night, he was killed by law enforcement officers after inviting the officers to shoot him, and then aggressively rushing them. Our task is to decide whether hospital and health care providers enjoy statutory immunity against a wrongful death and survivorship action alleging negligence in the decision to release rather than involuntarily admit the young man to the hospital.

FACTS AND PROCEEDINGS

On April 20, 2009, Gineene Williams brought her son, Charles Williams, Jr., to Peninsula Regional Medical Center ("PRMC"), where Dr. Michael P. Murphy and mental health worker George Stroop (collectively with PRMC, "the Health Care Providers") examined and evaluated him.[1] Williams had been suffering with suicidal ideation and auditory and visual hallucinations. Although alert and cooperative during his examination, Williams informed the Health Care Providers that he was "communicating with 'the lord[, '] that he believed his ex-girlfriend had placed a curse on him[, ] and that he had suffered blindness when he looked at a text message from her while in the emergency room." During the examination, the Health Care Providers noted cuts on the inside of Williams's arms and that he "minimiz[ed] any problems going on with him."

Upon completing the examination, the Health Care Providers elected not to admit Williams, discharging him to the care of his mother and advising her to remove any firearms from the home. Williams received a discharge diagnosis of "insomnia, fatigue, [and] bizarre behavior, " a prescription for the sedative Ambien, and instructions to return if he felt that he would harm himself or others.

Immediately after discharge, Williams absconded from his mother's care and went to a restaurant with his children and their mother, Michelle Crippen. At some point upon leaving the restaurant, Williams demanded that Crippen pull her vehicle to the side of the road. He exited the vehicle and disappeared. Shortly before midnight, after spending several hours wandering the streets of Salisbury, Williams broke into a residence, at which time the homeowner notified police. Upon arrival, officers encountered Williams in the front yard of the residence wielding a knife and saying, "shoot me, f***ing shoot me, somebody's going to die tonight." He then held the knife to his throat and declared, "I want you to shoot me, I want to die." When Williams rushed the officers, they fired their weapons at him. When he persisted, the officers fired again, killing him.

Plaintiffs Gineene Williams, [2] Patricia Gaines, Michelle Crippen, and Charles A. Williams, Sr. ("the Family" or "Plaintiffs") filed a wrongful death and survivorship action against the Health Care Providers in the Circuit Court for Wicomico County, alleging negligence, including (1) a "failure to appreciate the signs and symptoms" exhibited by Williams, (2) a failure to perform the appropriate diagnostic tests, (3) a "failure to appreciate the seriousness" of Williams's condition, (4) a "failure to admit" Williams, and (5) a "general failure to properly care for" Williams. No bad faith was alleged.

The Health Care Providers filed Motions to Dismiss, arguing that the Complaint failed to state a claim upon which relief could be granted, that they were entitled to statutory immunity, and that the Complaint failed to assert that the actions of the Health Care Providers were the proximate cause of Williams's injuries. After hearing arguments, the Circuit Court granted the Motions to Dismiss, concluding that the Health Care Providers were protected from liability by statutory immunity. The Family appealed to the Court of Special Appeals, which affirmed the decision of the Circuit Court. Williams v. Peninsula Reg'l Med. Ctr., 213 Md.App. 644, 75 A.3d 359 (2013).

We granted the Family's Petition for Writ of Certiorari to answer the following question:

Does Maryland's involuntary admission immunity statute, [Md. Code (1982, 2009 Repl. Vol.), § 10-618 of the Health-General Article], apply to health care providers who evaluate an individual and decide to discharge the patient from psychiatric care?[3]

Because we answer yes, we shall affirm the judgment of the Court of Special Appeals.

STANDARD OF REVIEW

The standard of appellate review of a lower court's grant of a motion to dismiss is well-settled: "[i]n reviewing the underlying grant of a motion to dismiss, we must assume the truth of the well-pleaded factual allegations of the complaint, including the reasonable inferences that may be drawn from those allegations." Debbas v. Nelson, 389 Md. 364, 372, 885 A.2d 802, 807 (2005) (citations omitted). We review these issues as a matter of law. See Davis v. Slater, 383 Md. 599, 604, 861 A.2d 78, 80–81 (2004) (citations omitted) (stating that interpreting the Maryland Code is a matter of law).

DISCUSSION

The single question presented by the Petitioners unfolds in their brief as two distinct issues. First, they read the text of Md. Code (1982, 2009 Repl. Vol.), § 10-618 of the Health-General Article ("HG") and Md. Code (1973, 2013 Repl. Vol.), § 5-623 of the Courts and Judicial Proceedings Article ("CJP") narrowly. They would have us interpret the statutory scheme to limit immunity to those individuals who apply for the involuntary admission of another and exclude those who perform the involuntary admission evaluation. Second, Plaintiffs contend that the immunity provided by HG § 10-618 and CJP § 5-623 applies only if the patient is admitted to the hospital, not in instances in which the individual is evaluated and released.

The Health Care Providers read this legislation more expansively. They contend that both the plain language and underlying purpose of HG § 10-618 and CJP § 5-623 dictate that statutory immunity extends to health care providers who perform an evaluation and decide not to involuntarily admit an individual. Counseling against our adoption of the Family's view, they warn that such a narrow reading of statutory immunity would ...


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