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Pennsylvania Supreme Court To Hear Physician Immunity Case Following Death Of Mental Health Patient

The Pennsylvania Supreme court will determine whether the Mental Health Procedures Act (MHPA) should shield several physicians from liability after providing care for a patient who died in a drug treatment facility. On a prior appeal, a Superior Court reversed a lower court ruling stating that the doctors should not be afforded immunity. Andrew Johnson, age 23, was voluntarily admitted to the Bowling Green Brandywine Treatment Center. Johnson suffered from an addiction to opioids and benzodiazepines. During his stay, he was sent twice to the emergency room because he was having hallucinations.

Patient Unresponsive

Ten days after admission, Johnson was found dead in his room–his parents filed a lawsuit. The defendants included James Duncklee & Jennifer Plumb, two doctors who had treated him in the emergency room, and Dr. Asim Khurshid Rana, the psychiatrist from the treatment center.

The lower court dismissed the case stating that the physicians did not demonstrate gross negligence, which is the primary exception to the MHPA’s immunity. The appeals court determined that Dr. Rana was entitled to immunity under MHPA, as he had diagnosed Johnson as having several mental health conditions and began treatment with medications.

Mental Health Procedures Act (MHPA)

Pennsylvania’s MHPA law provides immunity from civil or criminal actions to providers who are treating those with mental illness. This applies unless the provider demonstrates “willful misconduct or gross negligence.” The purpose of the Act is to better ensure that treatment will be available for those will mental illness. Lawmakers did not want to discourage medical professionals from treating these patients either voluntarily or involuntarily. In this case, Johnson had voluntarily entered the treatment facility and was treated for mental illness there.

Question for the Court

The remaining question for the Supreme Court relates to the potential liability of Dr. James Duncklee & Jennifer Plumb, the two doctors who provided care in the emergency room. The appeals court determined that the lower court should not have ruled that these two doctors should be entitled to immunity under the Act. They found that when Johnson arrived at the emergency room, Dr. Duncklee would not have been aware that he had been diagnosed with mental illness at the treatment center. The emergency room doctors argued that when Johnson arrived he was clearly suffering from both physical and mental problems.

Understanding Psychiatry

A psychiatrist is a physician that diagnoses and treats patients struggling with emotional disturbances and mental or behavioral conditions and problems. They analyze the patient’s psychological condition and use therapy, medication, and hospitalization as tools for treatment. Across the U.S. a shortage of psychiatric physicians is developing.

Increasing Demand for Mental Health Care

The shortage of psychiatrists is partially the result of the implementation of the Affordable Care Act and the expansion of Medicaid coverage in many states. More individuals with possible emotional or psychiatric conditions now have access to health care. According to Forbes, psychiatrists are now among the most heavily recruited physicians. There are currently an estimated 28,000 practicing in the U.S.; however, many are quickly approaching retirement age.

About the Author

Briggs Bedigian
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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