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The Pennsylvania Supreme Court has agreed to hear arguments over whether mental health professionals have a duty to warn of threats against a group of unspecified individuals.

In Maas v. UPMC Presbyterian Shadyside, a three-judge panel of the state Superior Court ruled last June that defendants UPMC Presbyterian Shadyside d/b/a Western Psychiatric Institute and Clinic, Western Psychiatric Institute and Clinic, Dr. Michelle Barwell and Western Psychiatric Institute and Clinic Adult Community Treatment Team had a duty to warn the neighbors of a mentally ill patient that he had threatened to kill one of them, even though he hadn’t specified which one.

The patient, Terrence Andrews, attacked and killed Lisa Maas, who lived four doors down in the same western Pennsylvania apartment complex, just days after informing the defendants of homicidal ideations against one of his neighbors, according to the Superior Court panel’s opinion, issued June 29, 2018. Maas died as a result of multiple stab wounds from scissors. Andrews had previously revealed during an ER visit to WPIC that he planned to kill one of his neighbors in that manner.

Laura L. Maas, administratrix of her daughter Lisa Maas’ estate, filed suit, arguing that the defendants had a duty to warn Andrews’ neighbors about the threats he had made during several ER visits and phone contacts with CTT.

An Allegheny County trial judge, relying on the state Supreme Court’s 1998 ruling in Emerich v. Philadelphia Center for Human Development and its 2000 ruling in Althaus ex rel Althaus v. Cohen, found that a reasonable jury could find that “‘the tenants residing on Andrews’[s] floor in Hampshire Hall were a readily identifiable group of people to whom [the UPMC] [D]efendants owed a duty to warn.’” Noting that the issue was one of first impression in Pennsylvania, the trial court consulted the Code of Ethics for Psychologists for guidance and found that it contemplates a duty to reveal confidential information to more than a specifically named person.

The Superior Court agreed.

“In this case, the UPMC defendants knew where Mr. Andrews lived,” Judge Mary Jane Bowes wrote for the panel. “In fact, they assisted him in securing his Hampshire Hall apartment. Practically speaking, the identities of Mr. Andrews’s fourth floor neighbors could be readily ascertained from the building management in order to communicate a reasonable warning. Alternatively, the proximity of their apartments to Mr. Andrews’s apartment made it possible to warn these individuals even without knowing their names.”

Bowes was joined by Judges Victor Stabile and Kate Ford Elliott.

The panel said the defendants’ attempt to rely on the state Supreme Court’s 2012 ruling in Seebold v. Prison Health Services “misses the mark.” In Seebold, the justices held that prison medical providers had no duty to warn, protect or rescue prison employees at risk from inmates with a possible communicable disease unless the health care provider played a role in creating the danger.

“The Seebold court noted that a duty to warn a third party had only been imposed once in a medical context, in Emerich, and specifically, to a mental health professional,” Bowes said. “Even then, the duty to warn extended only ‘to an identified or readily identifiable victim whom the patient had targeted.’ The court declined to impose ‘a new, affirmative, common-law duty in tort on the part of physicians to undertake third-party interventions in a prison setting,’ without ‘a broader policy assessment.’ We find the facts and policy considerations in Seebold to be vastly different from those identified and assessed by our high court in Emerich.”

On Feb. 13, the Supreme Court granted allocatur to determine a single question: “Can an ‘identifiable third party’ for purposes of a mental health professional’s duty to warn third parties consist of a group of unnamed neighbors under Emerich v. Philadelphia Center for Human Development … which limits a mental health professional’s duty to warn to specific, imminent threats of serious bodily injury made against specifically identified or readily identifiable third parties?”

Reached for comment on the allocatur grant, counsel for the plaintiff, Neil Rosen of Rosen Louik & Perry in Pittsburgh, said the Superior Court’s ruling was a “well-thought-out, well–reasoned, great opinion.”

“We welcome a review of that decision by the Supreme Court for obvious reasons,” he said. “I think a statement by the Supreme Court on mental health issues and violence against members of our society is extraordinarily important.”

Counsel for the defendants, John Conti of Dickie McCamey & Chilcote in Pittsburgh, could not be reached for comment on the allocatur grant.