Sadly, people with mental handicaps, like psychiatric patients, are often targets of sexual assault and sexual abuse. As some of the most vulnerable among us, they are unfortunately seen as easy prey by sexual predators. Mental patients can also be unstable, and may pose a risk to others. As a result, mental health care providers, like therapists and psychiatrists, have a special duty to protect their patients and third parties from harm. In most states, including Pennsylvania, mental health care providers have a special duty to warn third parties of harm posed by their patients. If, for instance, a mentally ill person tells their therapist they plan to hurt someone, like an ex-boyfriend, the therapist must tell the ex-boyfriend. This duty arises when the patient makes a specific threat of serious, imminent injury against a specific person. If the mental health care provider fails to warn the potential victim, like the ex-boyfriend, they may be held liable. The issue of mental health care provider liability is slightly complicated in Pennsylvania, however, by the existence of the Mental Health Procedures Act. Passed in 1976, the Act gives all mental health care providers limited immunity from lawsuits. To overcome this immunity and recover civil damages, the mental health provider must have acted with “gross negligence.” Gross negligence is a legal term that requires a defendant have acted with “substantially more than ordinary carelessness, inadvertence, laxity, or indifference.” In other words, the defendant’s behavior “must be flagrant, grossly deviating from the ordinary standard of care.”
What does this mean in practice? In 1977, for example, a Pennsylvania court found that a hospital acted with gross negligence when it released a violent mentally ill patient who proceeded to murder two people. Other courts have found gross negligence in other circumstances, such as when a suicidal patient is left unsupervised by hospital staff and subsequently takes their own life.
Andreozzi + Foote has represented victims of sexual abuse and other crimes committed in mental health facilities, and by mental patients. If you or someone you know has fallen victim to sexual abuse or another crime and might need a lawyer, or simply would like legal guidance, do not hesitate to call our office. We do not charge for phone consultations, and even if we cannot be of assistance, we will do everything we can to help point you in the right direction.