The Pennsylvania Supreme Court ruled that mental health professionals have a duty to warn of threats made by patients, even if they are made against an unspecified person. This ruling upheld a previous 2018 Superior Court decision that the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center (UPMC) Presbyterian Shadyside, the Western Psychiatric Institute and Clinic, as well as other defendants, had a duty to warn the neighbors of a patient who told his doctors he wanted to kill his neighbors, even though he didn’t give his doctors a specific name.
This case dates back to 2008 when UPMC patient Terrance Andrews carried out threats he previously told doctors. Those threats led to the murder of Lisa Maas, a neighbor of Andrews. According to medical reports, during visits to the Western Psychiatric Institute, Andrews repeated persistent violent threats against neighbors.
While he did not specify a particular name, days after making these threats, he stabbed and killed Maas with a pair of scissors. With the aid of Pittsburgh medical malpractice attorneys Neil Rosen and Jon Perry, Maas’ family filed a wrongful death lawsuit against UPMC.
In the Supreme Court, Perry argued for the family that the hospital had an obligation to warn the neighbors who lived on the same floor as Andrews that he was making those threats.
“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.
He added that the doctors had an obligation to tease out more information when Andrews made these threats.
In October, 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.” A State Superior Court ruling backed this motion that it was a medical provider’s duty to warn neighbors on the same floor as Andrews, although he did not specify an individual.
The State appealed the motion, but on Tuesday, the Supreme Court upheld their decision.
“The trial court and the Superior Court thus properly determined the duty to warn applies not only when a specific threat is made against a single readily identifiable individual, but also when the potential targets are readily identifiable because they are members of a specific and identified group — in this case, ‘neighbors’ residing in the patient’s apartment building,” wrote Justice Kevin Dougherty.
Perry was firm to note that this ruling was not only significant for the family of his victim, but also for mental health patients moving forward as well.
“I think it’s a very important decision for victims of mental health, such as my client,” he said. “I also think it’s a very important decision for people who suffer from mental health disorders.”
Perry noted that historically, medical malpractice cases like these would favor the privacy of the patient. However, Perry argued this shift towards public safety shows the lessening of a stigma around mental health disorders as it becomes more commonly accepted that these issues need to be met with care and attention.
This case has gained attention that may help shine more light on mental health disorders as well. In October, Perry argued before the Supreme Court on PCNTV. Outlets such as Law360, The Legal Intelligencer, and more have all covered the case.
The lawsuit, headed by Neil Rosen, Jon Perry, and our team of Pittsburgh medical malpractice lawyers, will now head to a jury. Andrews is serving a life sentence in the killing.
Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, “Suit over Shadyside slaying can go forward, Pa. high court rules”
Lewistown Sentinel, “Court says mental health doctors have duty to warn”