State Supreme Court to decide on suit over clinic shooting

May 20, 2020 GMT

PITTSBURGH (AP) — Pennsylvania’s highest court must now decide whether a woman shot eight years ago in the western Pennsylvania psychiatric clinic where she worked can sue a university and a physicians group over the assailant’s treatment before the attack.

The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette reports that the state Supreme Court heard arguments Tuesday on decisions by an appeals court and a former Allegheny County judge to dismiss the lawsuit by Kathryn Leight and her husband against the University of Pittsburgh and a physicians’ group.

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Chemistry graduate student John Shick, who had been diagnosed with schizophrenia, killed one employee and wounded six others during the March 2012 rampage inside Western Psychiatric Institute and Clinic in Pittsburgh before he was shot and killed. Leight, a receptionist, suffered severe injuries to her chest and abdomen.

The justices are deciding if doctors can be sued over a shooting incident after taking steps to have a patient committed involuntarily but not completing the process.

Leight’s attorney, Mark Homyak, argued that the physicians who treated Shick were grossly negligent for failing to follow through on having him involuntarily treated, and if they had done so, the shooting would not have occurred.

“There’s evidence they reached a decision, attempted to take action and then failed to complete it,” Homyak said. As a result, he said, his client was wounded.

But John Conti. the attorney for the physicians, argued there is no liability under the Mental Health Procedures Act because the doctors never executed a decision to seek involuntary treatment for Shick.

“There needs to be a bright line demarcation for when the involuntary commitment process begins ... otherwise “it opens the door to unfathomable ambiguity and confusion,” he said.

Homyak cited at least 21 documented times, and possibly as many as 30, that physicians within the University of Pittsburgh Physicians considered having Shick involuntarily examined.

“What is abundantly clear, however, is that there was no mere passing thought or vague consideration of the possibility of causing Shick to be involuntarily examined someday,” Homyak wrote. “Rather, necessary action was obvious and apparent to the physicians providing outpatient medical care to Shick.”

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Under questioning from Justice David Wecht, Homyak said he believes liability attaches “once the doctors evidence their decision.” Conti, however, argued that liability does not attach until the individual’s liberty has been infringed upon.

“Mr. Shick at all times was a voluntary outpatient, and it defies law and logic to contend otherwise,” the physicians’ attorneys wrote in their brief to the court, adding that more than a month had elapsed from the doctors’ last in-person interaction with Shick to the time of the shooting.

The Superior Court decision upholding the dismissal of the lawsuit expressed sympathy for the Leights’ argument, but said the court “cannot conclude that the mere thought or consideration of initiating an involuntary examination during voluntary outpatient treatment falls within the explicit scope” of the mental health treatment law.