Magazine article Developments in Mental Health Law

Security Company Can Be Held Liable for Patient's Attack on Physician, but Public Entity That Designed or Maintained the Conditions within the Facility Can Not

Magazine article Developments in Mental Health Law

Security Company Can Be Held Liable for Patient's Attack on Physician, but Public Entity That Designed or Maintained the Conditions within the Facility Can Not

Article excerpt

Although incidents of violence are relatively infrequent in facilities that provide housing to individuals with mental illness, protecting the safety of residents and staff is a continuing concern. After a physician was killed by a patient who had been admitted and held pursuant to California law for a seventy-two-hour evaluation as a person who is dangerous or gravely disabled as the result of a mental disorder, family members of the physician sued the facility where the attack occurred, the County responsible for the facility, and the privately owned entity that had contracted to provide security services at the facility.

The attack occurred while the doctor was alone with the patient in an isolated room approximately 100 feet from the nearest nurses' station. He was conducting a physical examination and obtaining the patient's history. During the preceding year, staff had complained about safety at the facility and penalties had been imposed by the State of California's Division of Occupational Safety and Health. However, little subsequent change in safety policies and procedures ensued.

The facility relied primarily on an unwritten "buddy system" policy that required staff to be accompanied by another person at all times when dealing with patients and the presence of a "panic button" in each examination room. A federal district court in California ruled that the family could proceed with its lawsuit against the security company, but rejected the claims again the facility and the County.

Facility Liability. As for the facility, the court noted that as a general rule governmental entities do not have an obligation under the federal constitution to provide minimal levels of safety and security in the workplace, unless the governmental entity's affirmative conduct placed the employee in danger (a so-called "danger creation" exception recognized by the Ninth Circuit). The court concluded that the family had failed to show any affirmative act by the facility that caused or increased the danger to the physician and ruled that merely showing that the facility maintained an unsafe work environment was insufficient.

The court noted that although the policy was unwritten and not always complied with, measures were in place to try to minimize the danger to employees and there was no evidence that the facility would have denied a request by the physician to have another staff member accompany her or would not have permitted her to use another, less isolated room. Ursua v. Alameda County Med. Ctr., No. C 04-3006 BZ, 2005 WL 3002175 (N.D. Cal. Oct. 27, 2005).

County Liability. …

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