A mentally disturbed woman died in a single-car accident after admitting herself for psychiatric treatment, then being released.

The woman suffered from bipolar disorder. Around Christmas Day 2006, she stopped taking her medications and began to drive aimlessly throughout Washington, Oregon, and Canada. Late at night on December 30, 2006, she sought help at a hospital emergency room in Seattle, reporting sleeplessness, paranoia, hallucinations, and suicidal thoughts. She was referred and transported to Overlake Hospital Medical Center where she agreed to be admitted voluntarily into the psychiatric unit. Eighteen hours later, she said she felt better and asked to be discharged.

A nurse tried to dissuade her from leaving, but after a telephone consultation with the county designated mental health professional, she granted the request to be discharged. The woman went home in a taxi but then resumed driving. Sadly, she died not long afterwards, miles away, in a single-car crash.

Her estate sued the Overlake Hospital and King County. The estate settled with King County, leaving the claim with Overlake to be litigated. The trial court granted summary judgment in favor of the estate, finding that the hospital was negligent.

On appeal Overlake Hospital argued that by statute the hospital is not liable unless the estate can show gross negligence, rather simple negligence.

The statute the hospital relied upon reads in part:

“No…evaluation and treatment facility shall be civilly or criminally liable for performing duties pursuant to this chapter [on psychiatric treatment] with regard to the decision of whether to admit, discharge, release, administer antipsychotic medications, or detain a person for evaluation and treatment: PROVIDED, That such duties were performed in good faith and without gross negligence.”[1]

The Washington Court of Appeals held that the trial court erred in judging the hospital by a mere negligence standard. The Court of Appeals held that the statute applies and the hospital is liable only if grossly negligent. The Court of Appeals sent the case back to the trial court for trial by the gross negligence standard.

By personal injury attorney Travis Eller

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