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Insane persons may be held liable for their intentional torts. As the inability to act rationally is not, per se, a bar to liability for negligence.
Plaintiff Corrine Colman was a recreational therapist employed by defendant Notre Dame Convalescent Home. Plaintiff was completely blind. Defendant Denittis suffered from senile dementia and has been a resident of the convalescent home since November 1994. She was admitted sometime after being declared an incompetent person in a probate proceeding. As a result of her condition, defendant suffered from severe memory deficit and confusion. In May 1995, while plaintiff was entertaining residents of the convalescent home by playing her guitar, defendant wrestled the guitar away from plaintiff and used it to beat her on the head. As a result of the attack, plaintiff suffered injuries and was unable to work for three weeks. Two months later, defendant again attacked plaintiff that caused her to lose her balance and fall. As a result, plaintiff injured her cervical and lumbar spines. Plaintiff claimed that, as a result of these attacks, she suffered from depression, post-traumatic stress disorder, and panic disorders. Plaintiff has not yet returned to work at the convalescent home. Plaintiff then filed a negligence and battery claims against defendants. For their part, the latter sought summary judgment arguing that their incompetent ward, who suffered from dementia and senility, was not liable for the attack.
Was defendant’s argument that their ward, who suffered from dementia and senility, was not liable for the attack meritorious?
The court denied defendant’s motion for summary judgment on plaintiff’s battery and negligence claims. The court rejected defendant’s argument that the incompetent ward lacked sufficient ability to comprehend her actions for purposes of intentional tort liability. The court also rejected the contention that liability for negligence was thereby precluded. Further, the court denied the defendant’s summary judgment motion as the court explained that an insane person could be liable for intentional torts based on a common-law principles. Moreover, the court held that although the incompetent ward suffered from dementia, the ability to act reasonably for purposes of establishing a departure therefrom for negligence liability was also not precluded. As the court observed that public policy avoided the difficult task associated with drawing a line between mental deficiency and variations in temperament and intellect that could not practically be taken into account in imposing liability.