The Court of Appeals Division I State of Washington (“Washington Appellate Court”), in its unpublished opinion filed on April 22, 2019, upheld a $10.8 million verdict for a mental health professional’s alleged negligent failure to involuntarily detain a man who had recently suffered a serious brain injury as a result of falling off a ladder, resulting in severe behavioral issues and multiple elopements from the hospital, which led to the man’s final elopement from the hospital and his falling down an unfinished staircase at a construction site, causing grave injuries as a result.
Washington’s Involuntary Treatment Act (“ITA”), Chapter 71.05 RCW, provides, in part, “Persons suffering from a mental disorder may not be involuntarily committed for treatment of such disorder except pursuant to provisions of this chapter, chapter 10.77 RCW, chapter 71.06 RCW, chapter 71.34 RCW, transfer pursuant to RCW 72.68.031 through 72.68.037, or pursuant to court ordered evaluation and treatment not to exceed ninety days pending a criminal trial or sentencing.” Section 71.05.153 provides, in relevant part, “When a designated crisis responder receives information alleging that a person, as the result of a mental disorder, presents an imminent likelihood of serious harm, or is in imminent danger because of being gravely disabled, after investigation and evaluation of the specific facts alleged and of the reliability and credibility of the person or persons providing the information if any, the designated crisis responder may take such person, or cause by oral or written order such person to be taken into emergency custody in an evaluation and treatment facility for not more than seventy-two hours as described in RCW 71.05.180.”
In the case the Washington Appellate Court was deciding, the County Designated Mental Health Professional determined not to evaluate the man for involuntary detention because he was not medically cleared for discharge, believing that the man was not gravely disabled because the hospital was providing for his care. The plaintiff’s expert testified during trial that the County Designated Mental Health Professional should have done more investigation because the expert believed that the man was gravely disabled at the time the County Designated Mental Health Professional was called and that the man’s brain injury was a mental disorder that would support an ITA detention. The jury found in favor of the plaintiffs and awarded $10.8 million, finding the defendant county 40% at fault and the defendant hospital 60% at fault.
Washington Appellate Court Opinion
The Washington Appellate Court stated that liability in this case was governed by the ITA, and the defendant could only be held liable if it was grossly negligent. To prove gross negligence, a plaintiff must show the defendant substantially breached its duty by failing to act with even slight care.
The Washington Appellate Court stated that there was significant dispute about what the County Designated Mental Health Professional actually did and what she actually knew, and that the jury was entitled to resolve the conflicts in favor of the plaintiff even though it was a close question as to whether the plaintiffs proved gross negligence.
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