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UPMC, doctors ask judge to toss clinic shooting lawsuit

by JOE MANDAK Associated Press on June 27, 2013 10:30 AM

PITTSBURGH — The University of Pittsburgh Medical Center and a related physicians’ group shouldn’t be held responsible for the critical injuries suffered by a receptionist who was wounded by a mentally ill gunman who shot her and five others, one of them fatally, hospital attorneys argued in a new court filing.

The preliminary objections filed by UPMC and the University of Pittsburgh Physicians group contend the Pennsylvania Supreme Court has determined the hospital and its doctors have no duty to issue warnings about an “at-risk third party” unless very specific circumstances exist.

Among other things, the psychiatric patient — in this case, the 30-year-old gunman, John Shick — must communicate “a specific and immediate threat of serious bodily injury” against a “specifically identified” third party — in this case, the plaintiff, Kathryn Leight, 66, of Glenshaw. And the hospital attorneys said that never happened.

UPMC’s response comes two months after attorneys for Leight filed an amended complaint in her Allegheny County Common Pleas lawsuit.

The complaint contends UPMC staffers who encountered Shick considered having him involuntarily committed but didn’t in the weeks leading up to the March 8, 2012, shooting at UPMC’s Western Psychiatric Institute and Clinic. Campus police fatally shot Shick to end the siege that began when he walked into the clinic’s front lobby, where Leight worked, and opened fire.

The district attorney determined Shick, who was schizophrenic and off his medicine, had been upset with the health network’s doctors for not diagnosing a litany of illnesses from which Shick imagined he suffered.

The amended lawsuit Leight’s attorneys filed in April was based on Shick’s medical records, which shed additional light on his encounters with UPMC and its doctors.

In the month before the shooting, Shick’s mother called a psychiatric crisis network run by UPMC in hopes its staff could talk Shick into committing himself, but Shick wouldn’t let the workers into his apartment.

A doctor who knew that Shick had brought a baseball bat to a specialist’s office and about a separate confrontation that prompted UPMC security staff to draw their guns on Shick also contacted the crisis network about having Shick committed but never followed through, the lawsuit said.

“As Shick’s schizophrenia blossomed he would become more and more delusional and aggressive, eventually escalating to threats of violence and violent acts,” the lawsuit stated.

But the hospital attorneys also contend that Shick couldn’t have been involuntarily committed under Pennsylvania law.

The law doesn’t “apply to voluntary outpatients such as John Shick” and, even if it did, “the facts alleged in the amended complaint do not show that John Shick was a clear and present danger to himself or to others that would have justified an application for involuntary commitment,” UPMC’s response said.

The objections filed Monday apply only to claims against UPMC, the doctors, an affiliated psychiatric crisis unit and the University of Pittsburgh itself. Leight is also suing Shick’s estate and his mother, and their attorneys must still file separate objections.

UPMC’s attorneys argue Leight’s claims should be covered under workers’ compensation instead.

“While we are very sorry for the injuries sustained by our employees, under the circumstances described in their lawsuits, the law is very clear that there is no basis to sue us for compensation in addition to medical expenses and wages for which we have compensated them,” UPMC spokeswoman Gloria Kreps said.

A wounded security guard also sued UPMC, while the family of the 25-year-old therapist killed by Shick rejected a $1.5 million settlement offer from UPMC, according to court documents unsealed last month at the request of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.

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