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Justices Refuse To End Case About Escaped Patient's Death

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

The Florida Supreme Court on Tuesday again refused to dismiss a case stemming from the death of a woman who escaped from an Alachua County psychiatric hospital and was killed on Interstate 75 — despite the parties reaching a settlement.

Justices, in a 4-3 decision, denied a request by Shands Teaching Hospital and Clinics, Inc. to reconsider an earlier decision that kept the lawsuit pending. The Supreme Court, as is common, did not explain its reasons for continuing to move forward with the case. Chief Justice Jorge Labarga and justices Barbara Pariente, R. Fred Lewis and James E.C. Perry were in the majority, while justices Peggy Quince, Charles Canady and Ricky Polston wanted to dismiss the case.

The lawsuit involves allegations that patient Ashley Lawson escaped from the Shands Vista psychiatric hospital after taking an employee's keys and badge and then went onto Interstate 75, where she was killed by a truck. Lawson's estate filed a negligence suit, but Shands 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. The 1st District Court of Appeal agreed with the hospital's argument, prompting the estate to go to the Supreme Court late last year.

Justices in June agreed to take up the case, but Lawson's estate filed a notice July 28 saying that it was voluntarily dismissing the appeal. But the Supreme Court, by the same 4-3 majority, issued an order in September refusing to dismiss the case and saying the dispute should remain pending. Shands then asked the Supreme Court to reconsider that stance, but Tuesday's order denied the request.