Georgia Court of Appeals Affirms Summary Judgment for Psychiatrist

The Georgia Supreme Court has affirmed summary judgment for a psychiatrist on a wrongful death claim filed by the widow of a man killed in a car accident by the psychiatrist’s patient. The patient was under the care of the psychiatrist for alcoholism and had been prescribed Lorazepam. The patient returned to Atlanta from a trip and scheduled an emergency visit with the psychiatrist. The patient instead went to a bar before going to the appointment. After the appointment, he returned to the bar and drank more. Later that evening, after drinking more, the patient struck Plaintiff’s husband and killed him.

Plaintiff sued the psychiatrist in “ordinary negligence” and professional malpractice. The trial court granted the psychiatrist summary judgment and Plaintiff appealed. The Court of Appeals affirmed, holding that there was no claim for “ordinary” negligence, either under the “Bradley Center” rule or because of violation of various statutes regarding involuntary commitment. In a word, the Court reaffirmed the rule that a third party cannot sue a professional for the acts of the professional’s patient because the duty to control the patient does not arise unless the professional exercises “legal authority” to “place restraints on the liberty” of the patient. Here, the patient was a voluntary outpatient, so the control element was missing. The Court also affirmed summary judgment on the professional malpractice claim because of lack of privity between Plaintiff and the provider.

Take-home: this case seems to strengthen the general rule regarding professional liability to third-parties after a slight weakening of the rule in cases like Peterson v. Reeves.

The case is Stanley v. Garrett, ___ S.E.2d ___, 2020 WL 5554398 (Ga.Ct.App. Sept. 17, 2020).

Georgia Court of Appeals Reinstates Claims Against Corporate Psychiatric Providers

The Georgia Court of Appeals has reversed the dismissal of certain counts of a third renewal complaint against two corporate psychiatric services providers. In Curles v. Psychiatric Solutions, the Court held that Plaintiffs had stated claims for negligence per se and ordinary negligence, not professional negligence, and that those claims related back to an original complaint for purposes of statutes of limitation and repose.

Plaintiffs are the estates and wrongful death claimants of two people killed by Amy Kern, a patient at a private psychiatric facility. Ms. Kern had been committed involuntarily to the facility on three occasions for psychotic episodes and violent tendencies. Twelve days after her last discharge, she killed her grandmother and her grandmother’s boyfriend.

Plaintiffs filed an original complaint against the corporate defendants and individual providers, alleging breach of the duty to exercise reasonable care to control Amy, consistent with the Bradley Center case. They also filed an expert affidavit. Plaintiffs dismissed the corporate defendants from the original complaint without prejudice. Plaintiffs then filed a “renewal complaint” against the corporate defendants with the same allegations and moved to consolidate the “renewal complaint” with the original complaint. The trial court granted the motion and added the corporate defendants back to the case. Plaintiffs then filed second and third amended complaints, which the corporate defendants moved to dismiss.

In the first part of the decision, the Court of Appeals held that Plaintiffs stated a claim against the corporate defendants for negligence per se based on the statutes requiring notice of discharge following involuntary commitment. The Court also held that Plaintiffs stated a claim for ordinary negligence against the corporate defendants because they alleged the decision to discharge Ms. Kern was based on the fact her insurance had run out, not on professional judgment.

In ruling the claim was viable under the Bradley Center/control test, the Court held that although Bradley Center involved specific threats against specific people, the control principle is not so limited. Rather, the duty to control is to protect third parties generally, not specific third parties only. The Court re-emphasized the underlying principle that knowledge of threats generally is the key element in a case based on Bradley Center, distinguishing the Baldwin v. Hosp. Auth. of Fulton County case in which there was no evidence of actual or threatened harm prior to discharge. Lastly, the Court held that the non-professional malpractice claims were similar enough to the allegations in the original complaint, such that they would relate back.

The take-home messages are (1) allegations of ordinary negligence or negligence per se will relate back, (2) dropped defendants can be added back into a case, and (3) a control claim under Bradley Center can be brought by injured third parties generally and is not limited to specific third parties targeted by the injuring party.