Does the Mental Health Procedures Act, 50 P.S. §§ 7101-7503, apply to voluntary outpatient treatment?

Leight v. University of Pittsburgh, et al., 202 A.3d 103 (Pa. Super. 2018), allocatur granted Sept. 3, 2019, appeal docket 29 WAL 2019 transferred to 35 WAP 2019

The Supreme Court granted allocatur in this case to determine whether the Mental Health Procedures Act (MHPA) applies to voluntary outpatient treatment.

This case arises from the March 8, 2012 shooting spree inside the Western Psychiatric Institute and Clinic (WPIC) committed by paranoid schizophrenic, John Shick. Several people, including Katheryn Leight, were injured in the shooting. Katheryn and her husband, John, (collectively, the Leights) filed claims under the Mental Health Procedures Act, 50 P.S. §§ 7101-7503, alleging that the University of Pittsburgh Physicians (UPP), UPMC, and University of Pittsburgh (Pitt) owed a duty to warn or protect Kathryn from Shick based on Defendant’s treatment of Shick on a voluntary outpatient basis, and that Defendants were grossly negligent in not involuntarily committing Shick in the weeks before the shooting spree. The trial court dismissed the MHPA claims, finding that the MHPA does not apply to voluntary outpatient treatment.  

The Leights appealed to Superior Court, which affirmed the trial court’s finding that Defendants’ voluntary outpatient treatment of Shick was outside of the scope  of the MHPA, reasoning that:

In the instant case, the Leights do not allege that UPP or Pitt was negligent in its examination or treatment of Shick while he was an involuntary inpatient or outpatient, or a voluntary inpatient at any facility. Further, the Leights do not raise any allegations regarding a decision to discharge Shick to outpatient care. Instead, the Leights attempt to expand the scope of the MHPA by asserting that treatment decisions on a voluntary outpatient basis established a duty on UPP and Pitt to protect Kathryn from Shick. However, because the “physicians never started the process for seeking an emergency examination…, no decision was ever made as to whether Shick should be involuntarily examined and receive involuntary treatment. [Citation omitted]. In point of fact, while Shick was evaluated by WPIC staff, the Leights do not allege that there was treatment or examination under the dictates of the MHPA. While we sympathize with the Leights’ argument, this Court cannot conclude that the mere thought or consideration of initiating an involuntary examination during voluntary outpatient treatment falls within the explicit scope of the MHPA. See Fogg v. Paoli Mem’l Hosp., 686 A.2d 1355, 1358 (Pa. Super. 1996) (noting that while a patient presented himself for treatment at an emergency room, he was not examined or treated by anyone in the field of mental health, and no decision regarding his treatment was made, the hospital could not “avail itself of the immunity protections of [section 7114 of] the MHPA.”); see also Herman v. Cty. of York, 482 F. Supp. 2d 554, 567–68 (M.D. Pa. 2007) (concluding that the MHPA was inapplicable where no proceedings for an involuntary examination or treatment were instituted and the patient was not receiving any voluntary inpatient treatment). Thus, the Leights cannot sustain a cause of action under the MHPA, and the trial court properly granted the Preliminary Objections filed by UPP and Pitt.

Slip Op. at 23-24.

The Supreme Court granted allocatur to examine:

Under the Mental Health Procedures Act, 50 P.S. [§]§ 7101[-7503], as interpreted by this Court in Goryeb v. Com. Dept. of Public Welfare, 575 A.2d 545 (Pa. 1990), can physicians who recognize that their patient is severely mentally ill and a clear and present danger to others, decide that he requires emergency involuntary examination under Section 302 of the Act, take affirmative steps to cause the examination to occur, but then grossly negligently fail to complete the process, be liable for injuries caused when their dangerous, mentally ill patient then engages in a mass shooting incident?

As part of the courts’ ongoing Covid 19 response, the Supreme Court will hear oral argument in this case via video conference: www.pacourts.us/courts/supreme-court/may-2020-supreme-court-session

For more information, contact Kevin McKeon or Dennis Whitaker.