Justices Urged To End Dispute Over Escaped Patient’s Death

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TALLAHASSEE (CBSMiami/NSF) – The lawsuit started with an unusual set of circumstances: A patient escaped from Shands Vista psychiatric hospital in Alachua County and went onto Interstate 75, where she was killed by a truck.

Eventually, the case made it to the Florida Supreme Court. But before justices could rule, the estate of patient Ashley Lawson and Shands Teaching Hospital and Clinics, Inc., reached a settlement.

Typically, that would end things. But in a 4-3 decision this month, the Supreme Court refused to dismiss the case and said the dispute should remain pending. Now, attorneys for Shands are asking the Supreme Court to reconsider that decision and let the lawsuit end, contending it is moot.

“There is no case or controversy between these parties,” Shands attorneys argued in a motion filed this week asking for reconsideration. “While admittedly that is not a bar to jurisdiction in this court, this (Supreme) Court’s power to compel parties to litigate a hypothetical dispute under the mootness doctrine has always been reserved for the most exceptional circumstances.”

The Supreme Court, as is common, did not explain the reasons when it issued an order Sept. 13 refusing to dismiss the case. But the issue clearly split the court, with Chief Justice Jorge Labarga and justices Barbara Pariente, R. Fred Lewis and James E.C. Perry in the majority, and justices Peggy Quince, Charles Canady and Ricky Polston wanting to approve the dismissal.

In the motion filed this week, the Shands attorneys pointed to the possibility that the court majority could be interested in resolving an issue about where to draw a legal line between medical-malpractice lawsuits and more-common negligence cases.

The lawsuit involves allegations that Lawson escaped from Shands Vista after taking an employee’s keys and badge. After Lawson was killed on Interstate 75, her 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 — the dismissal that the Supreme Court rejected in this month’s order. Shands Vista is now known as UF Health Shands Psychiatric Hospital, according to its website.

In the motion filed this week, the Shands attorneys offered a series of arguments about why the case should be dismissed, in part saying it is a “wrongful death case seeking monetary damages that the parties have successfully settled.”

The five-page document acknowledged that “the line between some medical malpractice and ordinary negligence factual scenarios is an interesting legal issue that is occasionally difficult to resolve given the fact-intensive and professional expert inquiries.” But it also suggested that the Lawson case, with its unusual circumstances, should not be the vehicle to resolve the issue.

“The likelihood of a case with these unique facts recurring is very slim,” said the motion, filed by attorneys Christine Davis Graves and Chris Altenbernd, a former longtime judge on the 2nd District Court of Appeal. “But, even if the case could be viewed as involving a broader issue, negligence claims against hospitals, mental health facilities, and other health care providers are not so rare that the broader issue would evade review in an appellate proceeding that presents an actual controversy.”

The News Service of Florida’s Jim Saunders contributed to this report.


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