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The New Tarasoff? 6th Circuit OKs Hospital Suit Over Ax-Wielding Ex-Patient

Posted Apr 7, 2009 3:49 PM CDT
By Martha Neil

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Decades ago, the groundbreaking Tarasoff decision made the tort law casebooks after the California Supreme Court found that a treating psychotherapist had a duty to warn a third party of potential danger posed by his patient. The rule applied by the court was was later codified into state law, and has been influential in other jurisdictions.

Now a federal appeals court says a statute--perhaps unintentionally--gives hospitals a similar duty to third parties concerning patients not appropriately treated for a mental illness, according to the Associated Press.

The estate of a suburban Detroit woman murdered by her husband 10 days after he was released by a Michigan hospital can proceed with a suit against the medical facility under a federal law that requires emergency treatment to stabilize patients, the 6th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals held yesterday.

Reversing a federal trial court's dismissal in 2007 of the case brought against Providence Hospital by the estate of Marie Moses Irons, a three-judge panel said a jury must decide whether Christopher Howard had an emergency condition--or whether doctors at the hospital believed he did--when he was released. One doctor at the hospital had recommended that Howard be transferred to psychiatric unit, but another disagreed when Howard was later released, the news agency writes.

"We recognize that our interpretation ... may have consequences for hospitals that Congress may or may not have considered or intended," says Judge Eric Clay in the court's opinion. "However, our duty is only to read the statute as it is written."

Howard, now 42, is serving a life sentence for first-degree murder. He killed his 41-year-old estranged wife with an ax as she slept, the AP reports.

The company that runs the hospital declined to comment to the AP about the 6th Circuit ruling. However, the hospital had earlier argued that Irons' estate has no standing to sue, as a third party, and that the Emergency Medical Treatment and Active Labor law is inapplicable because Howard didn't have an emergency condition.

The federal statute, the 6th Circuit opinion states, applies to "any individual" who suffers personal harm.

A 2005 article in the Monitor on Psychology gives a detailed account of recent standards applied under the California Supreme Court's 1976 ruling in Tarasoff v. Regents of the University of California.

Additional coverage:

The Journal of the American Academy of Psychiatry and the Law (PDF): "Tarasoff at Twenty-Five"

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