Thursday, July 5, 2018

Pennsylvania Superior Court Applies Intricacies of Limited Immunity Provision of the Mental Health Procedures Act in a Med Mal Case

In the case of Dean v. Bowling Green-Brandywine, No. 963 MDA 2017 (Pa. Super. July 2, 2018 Gantman, P.J., Panella, J., and Dubow, J.)(Op. by Panella, J.), the Pennsylvania Superior Court addressed the issue of whether a trial court properly entered a nonsuit against the Plaintiff under an application of the limited immunity provision of the Mental Health Procedures Act (MHPA).

Ultimately, the Superior Court affirmed the entry of the nonsuit in favor of some Defendants but not others in the matter.

The court noted that the limited immunity provision of the Act is intended to limit the criminal and civil liability of those charged with treating the mentally ill.  Under the Act, those engaged in treating mentally ill individuals "under the act" cannot be held liable absent "willful misconduct or gross negligence."

The court generally noted that the Act applies to the "voluntary inpatient treatment of mentally ill persons."  Prior to this decision, the term "mentally ill persons" had not been defined by the Act or case law.

According to the Opinion, the case involved a twenty-three year old individual who voluntarily applied to a treatment facility to address his addiction to pain medications he had been taking as prescribed for injuries following an ATV accident.  Less than ten days after his admission, the individual was found unresponsive on the floor of his room in the treatment center.  He subsequently passed away.

Thereafter, a medical malpractice suit was filed against several Defendants, some of whom pled the limited immunity provision of the MHPA as a defense.  During the course of trial, the remaining Defendants requested, and were granted, permission to add that defense to their pleadings.

At the close of the Plaintiff's case, the trial court granted a nonsuit in favor of all of the Defendants, finding that the Plaintiff had failed to show evidence of willful misconduct or gross negligence on the part of the Defendants and that, as such, the Defendants were entitled to the protections of the limited immunity provision.

In its Opinion, the Superior Court affirmed that the limited immunity provision was an affirmative defense ("immunity from suit") that has to be pled as an affirmative defense in a defendant's pleadings.

The appellate court reviewed the entry of the nonsuit with regards to each specific Defendant, finding that some Defendants were indeed entitled to a nonsuit, and others were not.  A critical question in this case was whether the treatment of the decedent's addiction amounted to a treatment of a mental illness with respect to each particular Defendant.

Anyone wishing to review a copy of this decision may click this LINK.

I sent thanks to Attorney Cynthia L. Brennan of the Berwyn, PA law office of Post & Post for bringing this case to my attention.

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