Duty to Warn Third Parties of Danger Posed by Mental Health Patient

Maas v. UPMC, 192 A.3d 1139 (Pa. Super. 2018), allocatur granted Feb. 13, 2019, appeal docket 7 WAP 2019

The issue in this case is whether mental health professionals have a duty to warn unidentified neighbors of a mental health patient under their care who they know may be at risk of bodily harm from the patient.  Lisa Maas, an 18-year old culinary institute student, was stabbed to death with scissors by her neighbor who lived four doors away on the fourth floor of her Oakland apartment building.  The killer was a mental health patient who had on multiple occasions communicated to the UPMC mental health professionals who cared for him, and who were aware of his living arrangements because they placed him in his apartment, his intent to kill his neighbor and his next-door neighbor. He explained that he was going to use scissors to stab his neighbor. Shortly before he killed Lisa Maas, he told the UPMC defendants that he was carrying scissors on his person for that purpose. However, the patient never identified “his neighbor” by name, so that the health care providers did not know that Lisa Maas was a person he was targeting.

Pennsylvania law imposes a duty on mental health professionals to warn third parties of the danger posed by a mental health patient in limited circumstances, where:

(1) a special relationship exists between the mental health professional and the patient; (2) the patient has communicated to the mental health professional a specific and immediate threat of serious bodily injury; (3) the patient’s threat is against a specifically identified or readily identifiable third party; and (4) the mental health professional determines, or should determine, that the patient presents a serious danger of violence to the third party.

Emerich v. Philadelphia Center for Human Development, Inc., 720 A.2d 1032, 1043 (Pa. 1998).

This case involves the third prong. Under the undisputed facts here, the trial court denied UPMC’s motion for summary judgment, the Superior Court affirmed, and the Supreme Court has now granted allocatur. UPMC contends that since no potential victim was identified by name, it had no duty to warn. Plaintiff and the lower courts, on the other hand, take the position that under the third prong of Emerich, the duty to warn exists where the target is identifiable, not just identified by name, and that mental health professionals must use reasonable efforts to identify the victim.

Here, where the UPMC mental health professionals knew where their patient lived, having assisted him in securing his fourth floor apartment, the Superior Court reasoned that:

Practically speaking, the identities of [the patient’s] fourth floor neighbors could be readily ascertained from the building management in order to communicate a reasonable warning. Alternatively, the proximity of their apartments to Mr. Andrews’s apartment made it possible to warn these individuals even without knowing their names.

We agree with the trial court that Administratrix made the requisite prima facie showing of a duty under Emerich. The remaining questions as to whether the UPMC Defendants breached that duty, whether their conduct fell below the standard of care, and if so, whether it was a cause in fact of Lisa Maas’s death, are questions of fact for the jury.

Slip Op. at 17-18, 20.

The Supreme Court’s grant of allocatur is phrased as the following question:

Can an “identifiable third party” for purposes of a mental health professional’s duty to warn third parties consist of a group of unnamed neighbors under Emerich v. Philadelphia Center for Human Development, Inc., 720 A.2d 1032 (Pa. 1998), which limits a mental health professional’s duty to warn to specific, imminent threats of serious bodily injury made against specifically identified or readily identifiable third parties?