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PA Superior Court Analyzes Extent of Limited Immunity for Physicians under the MHPA

On July 2, 2018 the Superior Court of Pennsylvania provided clarification to the extent of limited immunity provided to health care providers who treat mentally ill patients under the Mental Health Procedures Act (“MHPA”). Dean v. Bowling Green-Brandywine, 2018 PA Super 196 (Pa. Super. 2018). The MHPA was designed to provide limited civil and criminal immunity to “individuals and institutions providing treatment to the mentally ill.” Under the MHPA a physician providing treatment to a mentally ill person may only be found liable if they committed “gross negligence.” The claim against Bowling Green Brandywine Treatment Center (“Brandywine”) was brought by the parents of a patient who voluntarily admitted himself for treatment to deal with addiction to painkillers. Within ten days of being admitted the patient was found unresponsive on the floor of his room suffering from cardiac arrhythmia. After being transported to an emergency care facility the patient died. The parents’ medical experts opined that Brandywine committed gross negligence by failing to provide adequate care that would have made Brandywine aware that the patient was at considerable risk for cardiac arrest due to the medications in his system. The trial court held that all the doctors involved had limited immunity under the MHPA and granted a nonsuit against all defendants.

On appeal the parents argued that their son’s drug addiction was not dispositive by itself as to whether he suffered from mental illness, to which the court agreed. The court then went on to analyze whether care provided by Brandywine could be deemed to fall under the MHPA. The Superior Court found that for the first several days of treatment the patient was not classified as a mentally ill patient. However, two days prior to the patient’s death he had been seen for psychiatric care at Brandywine wherein a physician identified him as suffering from mood disorders and prescribed him medication. Consequently, even if the doctors were negligent by failing to identify the cardiac arrest risk, they were still protected by limited immunity as such error was not grossly negligent and the patient was deemed mentally ill.

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