The Court of Appeals of Indiana (“Indiana Appellate Court”) held in its November 12, 2021 opinion in a mental health malpractice case where a patient killed his grandfather: “the imminent danger prong allows consideration of all Zachary’s conduct and statements during the month leading up to his attack on John. And because the providers do not dispute that the totality of Zachary’s conduct and statements over that period could lead a reasonable trier of fact to find an imminent danger existed, the providers are not entitled to summary judgment. Therefore, we affirm the trial court’s denial of their motions.”
The Underlying Facts
In January 2017, after a month of erratic behavior and trips to the emergency room for mental-health issues, Zachary Miller killed his grandfather, John Miller. John’s widow later sued many of the healthcare providers. Several defendants moved for summary judgment under Indiana Code section 34-30-16-1, which provides that a “mental health service provider” does not have a duty to take action to protect others from a patient’s violent behavior unless the patient (1) “has communicated to the provider of mental health services an actual threat of physical violence or other means of harm against a reasonably identifiable victim or victims” or (2) “evidences conduct or makes statements indicating an imminent danger that the patient will use physical violence or use other means to cause serious personal injury or death to others.” The trial court denied the motions, and the providers appealed.
The Indiana Appellate Court stated: “Regarding the first prong of Section 34-30-16-1, we agree with the providers that Zachary did not communicate to them an “actual threat” against John. As for the “imminent danger” prong, the providers contend that because the phrases “evidences conduct” and “makes statements” are written in the present tense, each of Zachary’s hospital visits must be evaluated separately, and only what Zachary did and said “in the presence of” or “to” the providers during each specific visit can be considered in determining whether he posed an imminent danger of harm to others.”
In rejecting the defendants’ argument, the Indiana Appellate Court stated: “There are two problems with this interpretation of the statute. First, the imminent-danger prong, unlike the actual-threat prong, does not include a phrase like “to the provider” (e.g., “evidences conduct or makes statements to the provider indicating an imminent danger . . .”). Second, the proposed reading of the statute would mean that a patient could be acting violently and making clear, specific threats hours or minutes before meeting with a provider, and the provider could not consider those facts in determining whether the patient poses an imminent danger to others. Likewise, here, Zachary’s conduct and statements at the hospital on January 8 would have to be viewed in a vacuum, ignoring all the disturbing things he said and did over the previous thirty days. That cannot be what the legislature intended, which explains why it did not include language like “to the provider” in the imminent-danger prong.”
The Indiana Appellate Court therefore held: “Because the imminent-danger prong allows consideration of a patient’s “historical” or “prior” conduct and statements known to a provider, and because the Community Defendants and Medical Associates LLP do not dispute that the totality of Zachary’s conduct and statements between December 9 and January 8 could support a finding of imminent danger, they are not entitled to summary judgment under the imminent-danger prong [and] … [n]othing in Section 34-30-16-1 indicates that the duty to warn or take precautions is owed only to those potential victims who are completely unaware of the danger posed. This argument would require us to read into the statute language like “unless the potential victims are otherwise aware of the threat.” A court cannot engraft new words onto a statute.”
Source Coplan v. Miller, Court of Appeals Case No. 21A-CT-406.
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