No Duty in Relation to Involuntary Commitment in North Carolina

In a recent North Carolina injury case, a couple and their five surviving children sued a hospital and health system. The case arose because the couple’s son, who died, had PTSD after serving in Iraq as a Marine. He got an Other Than Honorable discharge because of drug abuse and therefore couldn’t get any subsequent care through the VA. He got no mental health or substance abuse treatment after being discharged. He abused alcohol, cocaine, marijuana, and pain pills and began gathering weapons and ammunition.

The family gathered in Asheville days before one of the daughters got married. While they were gathered, the man choked his brother, broke into another brother’s house and beat him, and tried to beat down the door of his parents’ house, while again beating his brother. He also threatened to beat down his biological father when he got into town for the wedding.

They called the police, and deputies came just after he left. The deputy suggested they involuntarily commit the man rather than have him arrested. The family agreed to these actions, and the father executed a petition to involuntarily commit the man. The petition asked for involuntary commitment on the grounds that the son was mentally ill and dangerous and needed treatment to stop deterioration that would predictably wind up being dangerous and that he was a substance abuser who was dangerous to himself and others.

A county clerk found reasonable grounds to believe the petition’s allegations were truthful and told police to take him into custody for a first examination, as required under N.C. Gen. Stat. §§ 122C-263 and 122C-283. He was taken into custody and taken to the hospital. At around 3:30 that afternoon, the nurses observed that the man was anxious, and his focus was impaired. He denied being suicidal.

Almost an hour later, the emergency medicine physician referred him to the hospital’s psychiatric unit to undergo a First Examination. In the psychiatric unit, a clinical social worker performed a Patient/Family Services Consult. In the chart, they indicated he was under community petition by the father. Later, a social worker performed an exam and got statements from the man’s family members. She recommended against inpatient treatment, finding that he would benefit from going home with a referral to the VA for help with his therapy.

Later, the family would claim the social worker wasn’t qualified to perform the First Examination. After talking to the social worker, the doctor signed a form indicating he didn’t meet the criteria to be committed as an in-patient. The form also said he was able to contract for safety, and he had strong social support and no psychiatric history. It noted he wasn’t mentally ill, and he wasn’t a substance abuser or dangerous to others. It also said the brothers didn’t feel the patient was dangerous to anyone, and it did not state that a brother had expressed the concern to another brother that the man was a danger. It also didn’t address the man’s eligibility for VA benefits.

The hospital discharged him at night without notifying the family. Three nights later, he broke into the family’s home and severely wounded family members before shooting himself in the head. His body fell on his mother as he fell, and he broke her leg. The sisters saw the shootings.

The family sued the hospital and health care system, claiming negligence, gross negligence, and negligent infliction of emotional distress based on the actions and omissions of the defendants.

The defendants moved to dismiss the lawsuit, and the plaintiffs tried to amend their complaint. The court denied the plaintiffs’ motion and dismissed the case, ruling that the hospital and health care system didn’t owe the family any legal duty. The family appealed.

The appellate court explained there’s generally no duty to control a third party’s actions or protect someone else from a third party. The exception to this rule is when there’s a special relationship between the defendant and the third party that imposes a duty upon the defendant to control the third party’s acts. If there is a special relationship that imposes a duty to control, a defendant can be held responsible if it knows or should know about the third party’s violent tendencies, and the defendant has the capacity to control the third party at the time of the third party’s criminal acts. There can be a special relationship if someone is involuntarily committed or negligently released, and the negligent release results in injuries to someone else.

The appellate court explained that N.C. Gen. Stat. §§ 122C-263(a) and 122C-283(a) require someone to be transported to be examined by a doctor or psychologist. The physician or psychologist is supposed to perform a First Examination. Custody is to continue with law enforcement until the respondent is transferred to a 24-hour facility or released from custody. However, the appellate court also held that the involuntary commitment statutes aren’t public safety statutes. There was no right to control the man at the time of the alleged breach of duty because it happened before he was admitted. The appellate court determined that no special relationship had been created to impose liability. The judgment was affirmed.

If you suffered injuries due to the wrongful conduct or negligence of another party, the experienced North Carolina personal injury attorneys at Maurer Law may be able to help you recover compensation. Contact us at 888-258-1087 or via our online form.

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