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U.S. Court In Georgia Holds Government Had No Duty To Prevent Harm To Wife In Treatment Of Husband After Suicide Attempt


HLD, v. 32, n. 1 (January 2004)

U.S. Court In Georgia Holds Government Had No Duty To Prevent Harm To Wife In Treatment Of Husband After Suicide Attempt

On September 1, 1997, Senior Airman Joseph L. Grijalva, of the U.S. Air Force, attempted suicide by taking an overdose of sleeping pills after he arrived in Arizona, where his wife, Lisa F. Grijalva (plaintiff) had taken their three children. Grijalva was stationed at Robins Air Force Base in Georgia, and plaintiff had taken the children to Arizona because of marital problems. Grijalva was admitted to the Air Force base hospital in Yuma, Arizona following his suicide attempt. While Grijalva was in the hospital, Dr. Cecil Rogers, a clinical psychologist, did a psychological assessment to determine if it was safe to discharge Grijalva. Rogers consulted with two Air Force officers, Dr. Angela Brown, a psychiatrist, and Captain Cynthia Hampton, a licensed clinical social worker, about Grijalva's condition. Plaintiff and Grijalva received marital counseling while Grijalva was in the hospital, and plaintiff stated Grijalva had never been violent towards her. Rogers determined Grijalva was not a danger to himself or others and discharged Grijalva from the hospital.

Grijalva was discharged on September 5 and he and plaintiff drove with the children back to Robins Air Force Base, arriving on September 8. On September 11, Grijalva and plaintiff had an argument, and Grijalva pushed plaintiff three times until she called base security. Grijalva's commanding officer issued a seventy-two-hour no contact order during which Grijalva could not contact plaintiff. On September 12, Grijalva had a follow-up safety assessment with Hampton about his marital problems. Grijalva told Hampton he was not having any suicidal or violent thoughts, but that he was depressed. Hampton determined Grijalva was not a danger to himself or anyone else. A few days later, Grijalva violated the no contact order, went to plaintiff's home and shot her. Plaintiff's spinal cord was injured, leaving her a paraplegic. Grijalva was prosecuted and sentenced to thirty years in prison. Plaintiff sued the United States (defendant) under the Federal Tort Claims Act, 28 U.S.C. � 2671, et seq. (FTCA), claiming that the government breached its duty arising under the physician-patient relationship to prevent harm to her.

The U.S. District Court for the Middle District of Georgia held for the government. The FTCA waives the sovereign immunity of the United States for certain negligent acts by government employees in specific circumstances, provided there is a state law that imposed a duty on the government employee. In Georgia, to prevail on a negligence action the plaintiff must prove a legal duty existed that was breached, a causal connection between the conduct and the injury, and as a result of the injury the plaintiff suffered damages.

Plaintiff argued that in Bradley Ctr., Inc. v. Wessner, 286 S.E.2d 693 (Ga. 1982), the Georgia Supreme Court found an exception to the general rule that "there is no duty to control the conduct of third persons to prevent them from causing physical harm to others" and held when a "special relationship" exists, such as "one who takes charge of a third person whom he knows or should know to be likely to cause bodily harm to others if not controlled is under a duty to exercise reasonable care to control the third person to prevent him from doing such harm." The court concluded that Bradley requires a two-part test in which the physician exercises control over the patient and the physician knew or should have know the patient was likely to harm others. In this case, said the court, plaintiff failed to show the two Bradley elements had been met.

On the first element, the court found that Hampton had very limited authority over Grijalva. Hampton did not see Grijalva as an inpatient, and Grijalva came to see Hampton voluntarily for a follow-up visit after his suicide attempt. The other mental health providers that assessed Grijalva also came to the conclusion that he was of no danger to himself or others. The court determined that Hampton did not have the authority alone to involuntarily commit Grijalva, and the kind of "special control" the military has over one of its members was not the type of control Bradley requires. Therefore, the court held plaintiff failed to prove the first element of Bradley--that Hampton had the requisite control over Grijalva. Because Hampton did not have the authority to control Grijalva, there was no breach of any duty to control him, the court said.

Plaintiff also failed to prove the second element of Bradley, that Hampton knew or should have known Grijalva was a danger to himself or others. The court noted that because the parties agreed "Hampton did not have actual knowledge of any intended harm" the only issue was whether, based on the information she had, Hampton reasonably should have known Grijalva was likely to harm someone. In determining whether Hampton reasonably should have known of Grijalva's possible dangerousness, the court looked to the facts that Grijalva was receiving outpatient not inpatient treatment, he did not have a history of violence, he denied having violent thoughts, he had not made any violent threats, and plaintiff had stated when Grijalva was in the hospital that she was not afraid of him and had no reason to believe he would harm her. Therefore, based on the evidence, the court determined that Hampton could have reasonable determined Grijalva was not a threat to himself or others. Thus, the court held plaintiff failed to prove the second element of Bradley.

The court also determined plaintiff failed to prove Hampton's conduct was the proximate cause of her injuries. Because Hampton could not reasonably have foreseen that Grijalva was going to shoot plaintiff, Grijalva's act was the sole proximate cause of plaintiff's injury. The court explained that even if Grijalva's act was foreseeable, Hampton did not have the authority to detain him or have him involuntarily committed.

Grijalva v. United States, No. 501CV-57-4(CAR), 2003 WL 22474611 (M.D. Ga. Oct. 31, 2003).

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