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When a treating psychiatrist knows or has reason to know that the patient, if released, will present a risk of serious bodily harm to others, the psychiatrist has a duty to take reasonable precautions, including, if necessary, the temporary detention of the patient until an involuntary commitment can be accomplished, in order to protect potential victims from the patient's violent propensities.
Vendria Perreira (plaintiff) filed a wrongful death action against the State of Colorado, the Fort Logan Mental Health Center (Fort Logan), a public hospital and agency of the State of Colorado, and Dr. Eric Anders, the staff psychiatrist at Fort Logan responsible for the care and treatment of Seth Buckmaster, a mentally ill person who was certified for short-term treatment at Fort Logan. The complaint alleged, inter alia, that Fort Logan and Dr. Anders were negligent in releasing Buckmaster from the short-term certification and that their negligence was the cause of Buckmaster's subsequent act of shooting and killing the plaintiff's husband, Augustus Perreira, approximately four months after Buckmaster's release. Prior to trial the parties stipulated that Fort Logan is a psychiatric hospital within the Department of Institutions of the State of Colorado and that at all times pertinent to this case Dr. Anders was the primary health care provider in charge of the treatment team for Buckmaster and was acting within the scope of his authority as a staff psychiatrist for Fort Logan. The State of Colorado, Fort Logan, and Dr. Anders defended on the basis that the complaint failed to state a claim for relief and that Dr. Anders was not negligent in treating Buckmaster and releasing him from an involuntary commitment. Here, Perreira sought review of an order from the Colorado Court of Appeals, which reversed a judgment entered on a jury verdict in favor of Perreira.
Can a state mental health center and its staff psychiatrist be held liable in tort for the shooting death of a police officer by a mentally ill person, recently released from an involuntary commitment for short-term treatment?
The court reversed and remanded for new trial, holding that when a staff psychiatrist of a state mental health facility was considering whether to release an involuntarily committed mental patient, the psychiatrist had a legal duty to exercise due care, consistent with the knowledge and skill ordinarily possessed by psychiatric practitioners under similar circumstances, to determine whether the patient had a propensity for violence and presented an unreasonable risk of serious bodily harm to others if released from the involuntary commitment. In discharging this legal duty the psychiatrist could be required to take reasonable precautions to protect the public from the danger created by the release of the involuntarily committed patient, including the giving of due consideration to extending the term of the patient's commitment or to placing appropriate conditions and restrictions on the release.