WA Supreme Court Revives Lawsuit Against Psychiatrist of Alleged Murderer

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by Andy Jones
January 2, 2017

In a divided 6-3 opinion issued December 22, the Washington Supreme Court ruled that the family of a shooting victim can pursue a medical negligence claim against the alleged murderer’s psychiatrist and the Spokane Psychiatric Clinic.

In 2010, Jan DeMeerleer shot his ex-fiancée Rebecca Shiering and her nine-year-old son, Phillip, before committing suicide.

For the prior nine years, DeMeerleer had been under the care of psychiatrist Howard Ashby, to whom he had expressed homicidal and suicidal thoughts. None of these thoughts, however, had specifically identified Shiering or Phillip as potential victims.

Shiering’s mother and her other son commenced a lawsuit against Ashby and the Clinic, on the basis that more could have been done to mitigate the threat posed by DeMeerleer.

Ashby and the Clinic argued that mental health professionals can only be liable in such situations where patients have communicated “an actual threat of violence” against select individuals.

The Court rejected this standard as too narrow. Relying on prior Court precedent, the six-member majority found that mental health professionals have a “special relationship” with their patients, similar to doctors, to take affirmative steps on behalf of their clients.

As such, the Court ruled in 1983 that psychiatrists could be held liable in negligence claims where they fall below the standard of care in regard to their treatment of civilly committed patients. This opinion, however, marks the first time the Court has held that psychiatrists can be held to the same standard in the outpatient setting.

“The mental health professional is under a duty of reasonable care to act consistent with the standards of the mental health profession and to protect the foreseeable victims of his or her patient,” the majority opinion stated. “Failing to recognize the duty owed by mental health professional to the foreseeable victims of their outpatients would foreclose a legitimate cause of action and would inform the victim that their rights are not worthy of legal protection against the dangerous conduct of mental health outpatients.

“It is our belief that this standard fairly balances the needs of protecting the public, allowing recovery for victims of psychiatric patients’ crimes, and providing the necessary protection for mental health professionals to perform their jobs. Granting absolute immunity to health care professionals in the outpatient setting would ‘disrupt that delicate balance.’”

The case now returns to the trial court for a jury trial on Ashby and the Clinic’s liability.