Family Can Sue Hospital In Ax Murder Case

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A federal appeals court ruled earlier this week that Michigan’s Providence Hospital, which released a mentally ill man who later killed his estranged wife, can be sued by the woman’s family.

The estate of Marie Moses Irons had filed a lawsuit against the hospital. In a 2007 ruling by U.S. District Judge Anna Diggs Taylor, the hospital was found not liable in the death. The appeals court, however, overturned this decision, citing a law which required that patients be stabilized or admitted if brought to the hospital with an emergency condition.

Christopher Howard, the patient in question, was taken to the Providence Hospital’s emergency room by Irons, his estranged wife, in December 2002. Sources say that Howard was physically ill and acting in a threatening manner, in addition to displaying signs of mental illness. He was admitted to the hospital, where one doctor recommended that he be transferred to a psychiatric unit. Another doctor, however, disagreed and discharged Howard.

Ten days after Howard’s release, he went to Irons’s home and attacked her with an ax, administering two brutal cuts to the neck. The couple’s 2-year-old son, who was on the scene, was not hurt in the incident.

Representatives for Providence Hospital argued that the estate had no grounds on which to sue, since the Emergency Medical Treatment and Active Labor Law—the one which mandates admittance if a patient shows up at the hospital with an emergency condition—is not valid in this case. Howard, they say, was screened and not judged to have such a condition.

The three-member panel of the 6th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals issued a statement saying that some aspects of the lawsuit should be tried before a jury. It also stated that there was no precedent for allowing a non-patient to sue under the Emergency Medical Treatment statute.

Judge Eric Clay, one of the panel’s members, said, “We recognize that our interpretation…may have consequences for hospitals that Congress may or may not have intended.” The law, however, does apply to “any individual” who alleges harm—including the family of a deceased victim, Clay added.

Howard was sentenced to life in prison for first-degree murder in the killing of Irons, who was 41 at the time of her death.

 

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