Estate of Davis v. Yong-Oh Lhim

422 N.W.2d 688
Brief Filed: 7/86
Court: Supreme Court of Michigan
Year of Decision: 1987

Read the full-text amicus brief (PDF, 957KB)

Issue

Whether a psychotherapist is liable under tort law for the standard of care concerning the discharge of patients from mental hospitals, and a therapist's duty to warn of potential danger

Index Topic

Duty to Warn/Protect

Facts

After being discharged from a state hospital, Mr. Patterson shot and killed his mother. The administratrix of the estate sued Dr. Lhim, staff psychiatrist at Northville State Mental Hospital, alleging that: (1) negligent discharge from the hospital resulted in this death; and (2) Dr. Lhim negligently failed to warn the deceased that her son was a danger to her safety. The only evidence of any threat of violence came from an entry in an emergency room record two years earlier of an unverified oral report from the patient. After a jury trial, the plaintiff was awarded $500,000. The trial court denied the defendant's motions for judgment notwithstanding the verdict or, in the alternative, a new trial. The Michigan Court of Appeals affirmed, finding that: (1) sovereign immunity did not apply; (2) the defendant owed a duty of reasonable care to a third party who is foreseeably endangered by his patient; (3) the defendant would be held to the standards of his profession; (4) the duty only extended to readily identifiable victims, not to the public at large; (5) there was sufficient evidence to support a jury finding that the doctor should have known, pursuant to applicable medical standards, that Mr. Patterson was a danger to the deceased; and (6) any intervening events did not bar liability because they were foreseeable.

APA's Position

APA's brief argued that: (1) there was no valid public policy or empirical justification for imposing liability on therapists for failing to accurately predict their patients' future dangerousness; (2) mental health professionals can neither reliably nor validly predict dangerousness; (3) a rule imposing a duty to assess dangerousness and take preventative measures will have adverse, not beneficial effects in that therapists will over-predict violence, and the costs of such a rule will outweigh the benefits; (4) alternatively, even assuming therapists may sometimes be liable for the patients' actions, there was no justification for imposing liability on the present facts because the defendant's decisions were immune from tort liability because Michigan case law clearly established that mental health decisions by state employees were discretionary, rather than ministerial, and immune from tort liability.

Results

The Michigan Supreme Court held that a government-employed mental health professional is immune from tort liability for decisions concerning the discharge of a patient and whether to warn private third parties of threats made against them by a patient in the course of treatment. Because it decided the case on immunity grounds, the court declined to reach the substantive question of whether Michigan would recognize a duty to warn.