In January 2017, Oliver Funez was involuntarily committed to a public hospital in Chapel Hill, North Carolina for six weeks where he was treated by Defendant Brian Robbins and other medical staff. Prior to his admission to the hospital, Oliver had displayed violent and aggressive behavior, manifested signs of psychosis, and refused to take his medication.
On February 28, 2017, Dr. Robbins made the decision to release Oliver, giving Oliver a supply of medication. Shortly after his release, Oliver stopped taking his medication. A week after his release, on March 6, 2017, Oliver fatally stabbed his mother, Yesenia Funez. Oliver later stated that voices in his head told him that God commanded him to kill, and that in doing so, he would become an angel.
The representative of Ms. Funez’ estate filed a wrongful death action against Dr. Robbins, asserting two claims: (1) ordinary negligence and (2) gross negligence. The trial court granted Dr. Robbins’ motion to dismiss both claims, concluding that Dr. Robbins has qualified immunity under the Mental Health, Developmental Disabilities, and Substance Abuse Act of 1985, codified at N.C. Gen. Stat. § 122C-210.1 (2017), which provides physicians working at State hospitals with statutory immunity against certain claims of ordinary negligence. The version of this statute that was in place when the plaintiff’s mental health medical malpractice action was commenced offers this immunity only “so long as the requisite procedures were followed [by the physician-defendant] and the decision [by the physician-defendant to release the patient] was an exercise of professional judgment[.]” N.C. Gen. Stat. § 122C-210.1 (This statute has been amended for actions commenced on or after 1 October 2019 to offer the immunity to any physician not engaged in “gross negligence.”). The plaintiff timely appealed.
In its opinion dated July 6, 2021, the Court of Appeals of North Carolina (“North Carolina Appellate Court”) held: “It seems evident that Plaintiff alleges that the negligent acts of Dr. Robbins all arose from the exercise of his professional judgment. However, the complaint simply does not allege—one way or the other—whether Dr. Robbins was following required procedures when he committed his negligent acts. And the burden is with Dr. Robbins to show that he falls within the class of doctors entitled to qualified immunity. Dr. Robbins may well be able to establish, as a matter of law, at the summary judgment stage that he followed all requisite procedures (though maybe some negligently) in his decision to discharge Oliver. However, the complaint itself does not conclusively establish that Dr. Robbins did so. Accordingly, we must conclude that Dr. Robbins was not entitled to dismissal of the ordinary negligence claims against him at the Rule 12(b)(6) stage based on qualified immunity.”
The North Carolina Appellate Court further held: “We conclude that it could be inferred from Plaintiff’s allegations, if true, that Dr. Robbins’ actions rose to the level of gross negligence. For example, Plaintiff alleges that Dr. Robbins acted recklessly in making certain decisions. Further, Plaintiff alleges that Dr. Robbins discharged Oliver “when it was apparent” that Oliver was not mentally stable. It could be inferred from this allegation that Dr. Robbins released Oliver even though he was aware that Oliver was not mentally stable. Also, a reasonable inference from the complaint suggests that Dr. Robbins recklessly disregarded Oliver’s medical records when he made the decision to discharge him without reviewing the records that had been entered during the previous few days when Dr. Robbins was not on duty.”
“Accordingly, we reverse the trial court’s dismissal of Plaintiff’s claim based on gross negligence. Of course, if discovery does not bear out Plaintiff’s allegations of gross negligence, Dr. Robbins would be entitled to summary judgment. However, at this stage, Plaintiff is entitled to proceed on his gross negligence claim.”
Source Ferrera v. Robbins, 2021-NCCOA-318.
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