Pennsylvania Supreme Court Holds Mental Health Immunity May Not Apply To Drug Rehabilitation

The Supreme Court of Pennsylvania Middle District (“Pennsylvania Supreme Court”), in its opinion dated February 15, 2020, discussed the scope and application of the qualified immunity provided under Section 114 of the Mental Health Procedures Act (“MHPA”), 50 P.S. §§7101-7503, and held, “immunity does not apply under circumstances where: (1) the patient was admitted for and primarily received drug detoxification treatment; and (2) the patient did not receive treatment to facilitate recovery from a mental illness.”

Mental Health Procedures Act (“MHPA”)

The MHPA “establishes rights and procedures for all involuntary treatment of mentally ill persons, whether inpatient or outpatient, and for all voluntary inpatient treatment of mentally ill persons.” 50 P.S. §7103. Section 114 of the MHPA insulates certain individuals from claims of ordinary negligence arising from treatment under the Act: “In the absence of willful misconduct or gross negligence, a county administrator, a director of a facility, a physician, a peace officer or any authorized person who participates in a decision that a person be examined or treated under this act, or that a person be discharged, or placed under partial hospitalization, outpatient care or leave of absence, or that the restraint upon such person be otherwise reduced, or a county administrator or other authorized person who denies an application for voluntary treatment or for involuntary emergency examination and treatment, shall not be civilly or criminally liable for such decision or any of its consequences.” 50 P.S. §7114(a)

In the case the Pennsylvania Supreme Court was deciding, the decedent sought rehabilitation and detoxification from a prescription drug addiction at defendant Bowling Green-Brandywine Addiction Treatment Center (“Brandywine”). During the decedent’s inpatient detoxification treatment at Brandywine, his blood pressure was recorded as very elevated and he had an elevated heart rate. He was treated with the high-blood-pressure medication Clonidine but received no additional treatment. He was later found lying on the floor of his room, face down, without a pulse. He was transported to a hospital where he was pronounced dead.

The decedent’s parents filed a Pennsylvania medical malpractice wrongful death lawsuit alleging medical malpractice, wrongful death, and survival claims. The plaintiffs alleged that their son died of a cardiac arrhythmia due to the combination of medications prescribed during treatment at Brandywine, and that his death was the result of medical negligence including the failure to properly examine, diagnose, appreciate, and treat his medical condition.

At the conclusion of the plaintiffs’ case at trial, the trial judge granted the defendants’ motion for nonsuit, which argued that the plaintiffs had failed to present evidence of willful misconduct or gross negligence and therefore the defendants were immune from suit under the MHPA. The plaintiffs appealed.

The Pennsylvania Supreme Court stated, “it appears that in order to be entitled to immunity, appellees must have provided treatment for a mental illness, independent from and in addition to the treatment provided for [the decedent’s] “drug dependence.”” The Pennsylvania Supreme Court further stated, “we observe application of the MHPA is limited by its own terms — it does not automatically apply in every situation involving a patient with a history of mental illness … however, the MHPA applies to treatment decisions that “supplement” and “aid” or “promote” relief and recovery from “mental illness” … Section 114 immunity might apply to treatment that does not specifically pertain to “mental illness” if the treatment “facilitates the recovery” from mental illness.”

In the case the Pennsylvania Supreme Court was deciding, “the Superior Court determined [the decedent] was not being treated for mental illness during his drug detoxification at Brandywine.” The Pennsylvania Supreme Court held: “Notwithstanding [the defendant psychiatrist’s] psychiatric evaluation, we conclude appellees did not provide [the decedent] with treatment to facilitate his “recovery from mental illness” such that MHPA immunity applies … our review of the record in the light most favorable to appellants does not support the lower courts’ determination that appellees fall under the protection of MHPA immunity. The undisputed cause of [the decedent’s] death was cardiac arrhythmia … There is no indication the medical care for the physical condition of elevated heart rate and blood pressure “was coincident to” any treatment for “mental illness” … Instead, [the decedent’s] dangerously elevated blood pressure and heart rate allegedly arose from his drug detoxification treatment, which does not fall within MHPA coverage … We are particularly disinclined to apply immunity here given that drug dependency is expressly excluded from relevant definitions of the MHPA-targeted condition of “mental illness.” 55 Pa. Code §5100.2.”

Source Dean v. Bowling Green-Brandywine, J-79-2019.

If you or a loved one may have been injured as a result of mental health malpractice in Pennsylvania or in another U.S. state, you should promptly find a Pennsylvania medical malpractice lawyer who may investigate your mental health malpractice claim for you and represent you or your loved one in a mental health medical malpractice case, if appropriate.

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This entry was posted on Thursday, April 16th, 2020 at 5:24 am. Both comments and pings are currently closed.

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