On October 16, 2019, Jon Perry argued before the Pennsylvania Supreme Court on behalf of the family of Lisa Maas, a woman who was attacked and killed by a UPMC psychiatric patient. Laura Maas, mother of the victim, consulted Rosen & Perry following this horrible tragedy. Pennsylvania law has long provided near blanket immunity to mental health care providers whose patients commit violent acts upon third parties. Despite the unfavorable law, the firm filed a wrongful death lawsuit alleging medical malpractice against the Pittsburgh hospital that treated the psychiatric patient. UPMC vigorously defended the case and moved for dismissal based on the long-standing judicial decisions favoring the health provider. Ultimately, the case made its way to the Commonwealth’s highest court. On Wednesday, Perry passionately made the case that mental health providers failed to warn eighteen year-old Lisa Maas about a patient who had made numerous threats against unnamed neighbors.
Terrance Andrews was a UPMC patient who made several ER visits to the Western Psychiatric Institute and Clinic. During those visits, Andrews repeated persistent violent threats against neighbors, according to medical reports. Andrews lived just four doors down from Maas in a four story apartment complex.
Days after Andrews informed the defendants of his homicidal thoughts; Maas was killed as a result of multiple stab wounds from scissors, the very method Andrews had informed his treating physicians he would utilize.
Perry argued that providing at least a general warning was needed in this circumstance. The providers had a duty to warn at least those on the patient’s floor about the threat, as those would be considered neighbors.
“Had she received a warning under her door, she would never have, by herself, alone in that apartment, opened the door and let him in,” Perry said.
John C. Conti, representing UPMC, has argued that neighbor is too nebulous of a term. It is too vague, and informing every potential “neighbor” would be unrealistic, and would hinder patient confidentiality.
However, Perry argued that UPMC knew not long after Andrews moved into the building from a group home that he was having issues with his neighbors. He told the medical professionals at UPMC that he was locking himself inside his apartment to keep himself from harming them. Perry argued Andrews’ admitted habit of shutting himself in his apartment should have narrowed the doctors’ interpretation of his threats to residents of his building, or even the apartments on his floor.
Mr. Andrew’s entire world consisted of the fourth floor of Hampshire Hall and the defendant’s hospitals. He had an anti-social personality disorder and when he used the term “neighbor” he was referring to a very small identifiable group, Perry informed the Justices.
Perry also argued that while doctors heard the threats directed towards neighbors, they did not tease out any specific targets and threats. As mentioned by Justice Dougherty during the appeal, part of the involuntary commitment evaluation process in Pennsylvania involves teasing out threats so those in any potential danger could be warned.
“How can they possibly say she wasn’t reasonably identifiable when they made no effort to determine whether she was reasonably identifiable,” Perry argued.
The medical malpractice case made its way to the Pennsylvania Supreme Court after an Allegheny County trial judge found that a reasonable jury could find that “the tenants residing on Andrews’ floor in Hampshire Hall were a readily identifiable group of people to whom [the UPMC] defendants owed a duty to warn.” The denial of UPMC’s motion for summary judgment was backed by the State Superior Court, ruling that the medical providers had a duty to warn the fourth floor neighbors of a mentally ill patient that he had threatened to kill one of them, even though he hadn’t specified which one.
The Pennsylvania Supreme Court is the state’s court of last resort and is primarily responsible for correcting potential errors made by lower level courts. The seven elected justices hear appeals, like Maas v. UPMC Presbyterian Shadyside, from the Pennsylvania Superior Court and Pennsylvania Commonwealth Court as well as direct appeals from the Pennsylvania Court of Common pleas.
A decision on the Mass appeal will not be issued for several months.
The case has gained considerable attention as it has worked its way through the Pennsylvania court system over the past few years. In addition to being covered by Law360 and The Legal Intelligencer, the PA Supreme Court argument was aired on PCNTV on October 19. The Rosen & Perry team will continue to fight for the plaintiffs as they seek justice after the wrongful death of a loved one.
Even though the court’s processes can be a drawn out, our medical malpractice lawyers stand by our clients each step of the way. While clients take time to heal, our attorneys handle the complexities of the legal system. Our lawyers never shy away from a tough case and have established an impressive track record of making positive judicial improvements supporting victims’ rights. If you or loved one feel like you may have been a victim, reach out to our Pittsburgh medical malpractice law firm for a free case consultation where we’ll determine if you should proceed with filing a lawsuit.
Law360 (A LexisNexis Company), “Could UPMC Have Warned Of Violent Patient, Pa. Justices Ask”
The Legal Intelligencer (Law.com), “Pa. High Court Warned About Creating ‘Untenable’ Duty to Warn for Mental Health Professionals”