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Is a Georgia Mental Health Care Facility Liable for Discharging a Patient Who Commits Murder?

Georgia’s mental health system has come under increasing public and regulatory scrutiny in recent years. Too many people suffering from serious mental illness do not receive adequate treatment. While that is tragic in and of itself, the system’s failures are compounded when these untreated patients injure or even kill innocent third parties.

Curles v. Psychiatric Solutions, Inc.

The Georgia Court of Appeals recently considered a mental health care facility’s potential civil liability in one such case. A woman with a long history of “psychotic breaks” was committed to a private psychiatric facility on three separate occasions. Approximately two weeks after the facility discharged her for the third time, the woman killed her grandmother and another man.

The heirs of the two victims sued a number of defendants, including the corporations that owned and operated the psychiatric facility. In one count of their complaint, the plaintiffs accused the defendants of “negligence per se” by failing to follow Georgia law regarding the discharge of involuntarily committed mental patients. Specifically, Georgia requires a facility to notify the court that entered the commitment order or, if the patient has been charged with a crime, the law enforcement agency that made the arrest. In this case, the plaintiffs allege that these notifications were never made.

The defendants claimed this was really a medical malpractice case. As such, the plaintiffs were required by Georgia law to comply with certain pre-lawsuit requirements. The trial court agreed and dismissed the case.

The Court of Appeals reversed the judge’s ruling and returned the issue for trial. The Court of Appeals agreed with the plaintiffs that this particular allegation involved a claim for “ordinary negligence” and “did not arise out of care or treatment” for the mentally ill patient. The plaintiffs’ allegation arises from a failure to follow a statutory duty. Malpractice, in contrast, involves the discretionary exercise of professional judgment.

For similar reasons, the Court of Appeals also reinstated a second allegation that the defendants committed ordinary negligence by discharging the mentally ill women just prior to the victims’ deaths. As the Court noted, while the “general rule” in Georgia is that there is “no duty to control conduct of third persons to prevent them from causing physical harm to others,” there is an exception when a “special relationship” exists, such as between a mental health facility and a patient. In these situations, the health care provider has a duty to exercise “reasonable care” to prevent harm to others.

Based on the plaintiffs’ complaint here, the woman repeatedly engaged in acts and threats of violence. That is why she was involuntarily committed to the defendants’ care in the first place. This supported the plaintiffs’ allegation that the defendants had prior knowledge that the woman “was likely to cause bodily harm to others if not controlled.” Once again, the appeals court said this was a matter of ordinary negligence and not medical malpractice.