Medical Malpractice and Personal Injury Law Blog

Pennsylvania Supreme Court to Rule on Critical Duty of Mental Health Providers

Posted by Briggs Bedigian | May 20, 2019 | 0 Comments

The case of Maas v. UPMC Presbyterian Shadyside will be heard by the Pennsylvania Supreme Court. The court is tasked with clarifying the duty that those who provide mental health services have when a patient expresses a desire to harm another individual. The Supreme Court would essentially be expanding the duty of these professionals if the lower court ruling is affirmed. Critics feel that further expanding this duty begins to infringe on the confidentiality that must exist in the provider's relationship with the patient.

Case Details

Terrance Andrews was a patient suffering from psychiatric conditions that commonly cause potential thoughts of a “suicidal and homicidal” nature. Andrews was being treated at UPMC Presbyterian Shadyside. Lisa Maas was a resident of the same apartment building as Andrews. One day Andrews attacked and killed Maas by stabbing her. Law enforcement was promptly called to the scene.

Andrews told members of law enforcement that he had mentioned his homicidal desire to the staff at UPMC Presbyterian Shadyside. The surviving family filed a lawsuit for Lisa's wrongful death against the facility. It was revealed that Andrews had mentioned wanted to harm a neighbor; however, he did not identify that neighbor specifically. The lawsuit accuses the facility of negligence for failing to warn.

A Duty to Warn

In the case of Emerich v. Philadelphia Center for Human Development, the court determined that mental health professionals have a duty to warn those who may be in danger. This applies when their patient has made threatening remarks against an individual who is specifically identifiable. The majority of courts outside of Pennsylvania have also agreed.

Another Case Similar Case in Pennsylvania

Gad Joseph suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder, substance abuse problems, and personality disorders. He was receiving mental health counseling when he told the counselor that he wanted to kill his former girlfriend. An additional therapy session was conducted where Joseph explained that he was no longer thinking about harming her.

The counselor notified the girlfriend that she should avoid Joseph. Shortly after, the girlfriend went to Joseph's apartment and was shot and killed. A lawsuit was filed that asserted the counselor was negligent for failing to order that Joseph be placed in a mental facility and other allegations. The court later found that the counselor had fulfilled her duty to warn and was not obligated to take any further actions.

Pennsylvania Laws for Psychologist Confidentiality

  • Psychologists are to maintain confidentiality regarding the details of treatment with individuals
  • Any disclosure of such personal information would require that the client provide written consent, or that their representative grants such consent on their behalf
  • This applies to any disclosure of such information in any legal actions
  • They are to exercise caution to prevent others including employees or other clients from making any disclosures regarding a client
  • An exception exists when “after careful deliberation” it is determined that a “clear and imminent danger” exists.
  • When disclosure is necessary due to danger, the psychologist is to disclose the necessary information exclusively to local agencies such as law enforcement

About the Author

Briggs Bedigian

H. Briggs Bedigian (“Briggs”) is a founding partner of Gilman & Bedigian, LLC.  Prior to forming Gilman & Bedigian, LLC, Briggs was a partner at Wais, Vogelstein and Bedigian, LLC, where he was the head of the firm's litigation practice.  Briggs' legal practice is focused on representing clients involved in medical malpractice and catastrophic personal injury cases. 

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