December 23, 2020

Pa. Supreme Court: Doctors cannot be sued for failing to commit Western Psych shooter

By haziqbinarif

About an hour ago

The Pennsylvania Supreme Court on Tuesday ruled that a lawsuit against the doctors who failed to involuntarily commit the man who killed one and injured others at a March 2012 shooting at Western Psychiatric Institute and Clinic cannot go forward.

In a 6-1 opinion, the court found that the doctors who were subject to the initial lawsuit could not be found liable under the state’s Mental Health Procedures Act because it applies only to involuntary treatment, and the physicians never took the steps necessary to have gunman John Shick committed.

The court wrote that its opinion “limits liability to discrete and clear actions on the part of health care workers, creates a bright line consistent with the plain language of the MHPA, and serves both the physician and the mental health patient.”

“The requirements of Section 302 are exclusive, clear, and unequivocal,” wrote Justice Debra Todd. “Physicians who never invoke a necessary requirement for involuntary emergency examination are not, for purposes of [the act] participating in a decision that a person be examined.”

On March 8, 2012, Shick, who had previously been diagnosed with schizophrenia, entered the hospital in Pittsburgh’s Oakland section, now called UPMC Western Psychiatric Hospital, and opened fire.

Kathryn Leight, a receptionist there, was shot in the chest and abdomen and suffered serious injuries.

She sued the hospital system and University of Pittsburgh Physicians alleging that they initiated steps for Shick to receive involuntary mental health treatment but failed to follow through, leading to the shooting.

Now-retired Allegheny County Common Pleas Judge R. Stanton Wettick Jr. ruled against Leight, and threw out her lawsuit.

The state Superior Court concurred.

In May, Leight’s attorney argued to the state Supreme Court that the doctors who failed to follow through on Shick’s involuntary treatment were negligent.

In court filings, he documented 21 times that University of Pittsburgh Physicians thought about having Shick involuntarily examined. In one instance, on Feb. 10, 2012, Shick walked into his doctor’s office carrying a baseball bat. He banged it on the counter that day and threatened the staff.

Shick had been committed five separate times in other cities but never in Pittsburgh.

Attorneys for UPMC argued that the Mental Health Procedures Act requires the doctors to formally execute such a decision before they can be held liable.

In the 27-page opinion, the Supreme Court majority agreed.

There are three methods for initiating involuntary emergency examination: certification by a physician; warrant by a county administrator; or application by a physician, peace officer, or other person authorized by the county administrator.

None of those happened with Shick, the court found.

“We reiterate that mere thoughts, consideration, or steps short of the mandated Section 302 prerequisites for initiating an involuntary emergency examination lie outside of a … cause of action,” Todd wrote.

In their opinion, the majority found that if Leight’s interpretation of the Mental Health Procedures Act stood, it could “render health care workers potentially liable for any thought or act, no matter how inconsequential, tangentially related to the consideration of an involuntary examination of a patient.”

Further, they wrote, it could both potentially discourage health care workers from treating patients exhibiting mental health symptoms, or lead to an over-commitment of patients to avoid potential liability.

”This incentive would not only be inconsistent with the goal of treating patients with the least appropriate restrictions, … but would result in the unnecessary deprivation of the patient’s liberty.”

Paula Reed Ward is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Paula by email at or via Twitter .

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