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Court Sides With Hospital In Death Of Escaped Patient

Leon County Judge John Cooper on June 30, 2022, in a screen grab from The Florida Channel.
University of Florida Health
The Florida Channel
UF Health Shands Psychiatric Hospital UF Health Shands Psychiatric Hospital

A sharply divided appeals court Friday ruled that the death of a woman who was hit by a truck after escaping from a psychiatric hospital should be handled as a medical-malpractice case --- effectively leading to the dismissal of a lawsuit filed by her estate.

The 1st District Court of Appeal sided with Shands Vista, a psychiatric hospital affiliated with Shands Teaching Hospital and Clinics, Inc.

The case stemmed from the January 2013 death of psychiatric patient Ashley Lawson, who took an employee's keys and badge and escaped from the hospital. Lawson went onto Interstate 75 in Alachua County and was fatally struck by a truck, according to news reports.

The woman's estate filed a negligence lawsuit, but the hospital argued that the case should be handled as an allegation of medical malpractice. The hospital's position would lead to dismissal of the lawsuit because the estate had not given a pre-suit notice that is required in medical-malpractice cases.

A circuit judge sided with the estate, but a majority of the full 1st District Court of Appeal ruled that the allegations should be considered as a medical malpractice case. The ruling was by a 7-5 margin, with one other judge partially supporting the majority and partially dissenting.

"Because the breach arose from Shands' provision, and ultimate failure, to keep Ms. Lawson confined within its locked unit, and was the service that Ms. Lawson's condition allegedly required, we conclude that the estate's claim arises out of the medical care, treatment, and services provided to her,'' said the majority opinion, written by appeals-court Judge Timothy Osterhaus.

The majority opinion indicated that the case should be dismissed "without prejudice," which means the estate could try to argue compliance with the medical-malpractice law's pre-suit notice requirement or try again to argue that the case is about ordinary negligence.

But in one of two dissenting opinions, Judge James Wolf wrote that the allegations in the case were unrelated to "diagnosis and treatment" and that the lawsuit should not be dismissed under the medical-malpractice law's requirements.

"Here, the hospital's position is that decisions concerning the level of security to provide for a psychiatric patient are directly related to diagnosis and establishing protocols and therefore constitute medical negligence,'' Wolf wrote.

"The courts of this state, including this court, have specifically rejected such an expansive definition and recognized that not all negligence related to security in a psychiatric lockdown unit constitutes medical negligence."