Indiana Regional Medical Center and an Indiana physician have been sued for alleged improper mental health treatment of Lewis Beatty, who later killed his estranged wife and two daughters last year in northern Indiana County.
Ronald Smail, of Dayton, filed the suit May 30 in Indiana County Common Pleas Court, demanding unspecified cash damages for the deaths of his daughter, Christine Beatty, and granddaughters Amanda and Sara Beatty. A hospital attorney denies the hospital should have to pay damages in the case.
Smail’s attorney and a lawyer representing both IRMC and physician Luis Tomacruz filed papers Monday in support of their respective positions.
Lewis Beatty, 41, pleaded guilty Dec. 7 and was sentenced to three terms of life in prison for the June 1, 2012, murders.
Beatty, who shared custody of his daughters in an informal arrangement with his wife after they split up a few months earlier, killed the girls by choking them and slitting their throats at his residence along Morrow Road near Plumville in South Mahoning Township.
Lewis Beatty then confronted Christine Beatty at her rented home along Pfeiffer Road outside Marion Center in East Mahoning Township, where he choked her, cut her throat and set her residence on fire.
Beatty returned to his house and set several fires, authorities said, then tried to kill himself by cutting his wrists, according to his lawyers.
Ten days earlier, Lewis Beatty, who was under treatment for depression, went to the IRMC seeking inpatient mental health treatment but was discharged with a prescription for an anxiety drug after just 26 minutes, according to the lawsuit.
Smail’s lawyers have accused the hospital and Tomacruz with failures in two ways — first, that they had an obligation to warn Christine Beatty that her husband had made threats to kill her, and second, that their level of care for Lewis Beatty amounted to negligence, willful misconduct and incompetence, according to the lawsuit.
In a list of objections to the lawsuit, hospital attorneys claim that Lewis Betty did not specifically threaten anyone and that an allegation that Tomacruz failed to order a psychiatric consultation for Beatty does not amount to the kind of negligence allowing a claim for punitive damages.
Attorneys for both sides relied on a passage from the notes taken by an emergency department worker during Beatty’s visit to IRMC on May 22, 2012, to support their claims.
“Patient states he and his wife are separated and having problems,” the worker wrote. “States his wife went out with another guy last night. Patient states he doesn’t know how to deal with it. States he thinks he is having a panic attack. Feels palpitations and shaky. States he is having suicidal thoughts. Is taking Lexapro. States that he is scared. Also having homicidal thoughts towards his wife.”
According to Smail’s lawsuit, Tomacruz evaluated Beatty and either declined to take an adequate medical and social history from Beatty or did not acquaint himself with any history already taken by another member of the hospital staff.
The suit alleges Tomacruz neither reviewed nor acknowledged the triage nurse’s notes including Beatty’s “expression of specific suicidal and homicidal ideations.”
Then, because he failed to order a psychiatric consult, neither Tomacruz nor other IRMC personnel could properly evaluate whether Beatty posed a risk of harm to himself or others, the suit charges.
“Lewis Beatty would have consented to a voluntary commitment had it been suggested to him,” attorney Victor Pribanic, of White Oak, wrote in the suit. “Indeed, Mr. Beatty recognized that he needed immediate professional help and thus presented to the emergency room with the expectation that he would receive inpatient treatment for his murderous ideations and physical symptoms.”
IRMC’s counsel, Thomas Anderson, of Pittsburgh, responded in a list of preliminary objections that the nurse’s notes show Beatty had not made the kind of threat that would require action by the medical professionals.
Citing earlier court decisions, Anderson wrote, “Generally, a physician is under no duty to warn non-patient third parties of a patient’s dangerous propensities. However, a duty will be imposed where the patient has voiced a specific threat to harm a specific individual.”
According to the response, “there are no facts indicating that Mr. Beatty communicated a specific threat to harm his wife or his children. The notations in Mr. Beatty’s medical records refer to suicidal and homicidal thoughts, not threats. A thought is not the same thing as a threat. Ideations are not the same as threats.”
While the defense attorney acknowledged in the objections that a psychiatric consultation was not ordered for Beatty, the hospital and doctor shouldn’t be held to pay damages.
“Punitive damages are recoverable only in cases of outrageous behavior, where the defendant’s egregious conduct showed either evil motive or reckless indifference to the rights of others. … Neither mere negligence nor even gross negligence shows sufficient culpability to justify an award of punitive damages.”
Anderson’s filing of objections asks the court to strike many of the allegations and claims for damages from Pribanic’s complaint on behalf of Smail.
No hearings or other court action have been scheduled on the lawsuit and objections.