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Medical Malpractice

Escaped Patient Case Dismissed in Surprise Ruling

— December 5, 2016

On Wednesday of last week, Florida’s Supreme Court agreed to dismiss a case pertaining to the death of an escaped patient from the UF Health Shands Psychiatric Hospital. Despite having denied requests for dismissal twice, even after a settlement between both parties had been reached, the majority has since moved in favor to drop the case. As is customary, the court did not provide an explanation for their most recent decision.

In January of 2013, Ashley Lawson, who was a psychiatric patient residing at Shands, formerly known as Shands Teaching Hospital and Clinics, Inc., stole an employee’s official badge and set of keys to escape from the institution. Upon successfully leaving the facility, she wandered onto Interstate 75 in Alchua County and was struck by a truck, resulting in her death. Shortly thereafter, Lawson’s estate filed a negligence lawsuit against the hospital, who argued it should have been handled as a medical malpractice case, thus protecting them against being held liable, as her estate had not provided the required pre-suit notice for instances of medical malpractice.

UF Health Shands Psychiatric Hospital; image courtesy of UF Health
UF Health Shands Psychiatric Hospital; image courtesy of UF Health

While a circuit judge sided with the estate, the majority of the 1st District Court of Appeal ruled in favor of the hospital by a 7-5 margin that the case should be considered one of medical malpractice, with Judge Timothy Osterhaus writing in the ruling, “Because the breach arose from Shands’ provision, and ultimate failure, to keep Ms. Lawson confined within its locked unit, and was the service that Ms. Lawson’s condition allegedly required, we conclude that the estate’s claim arises out of the medical care, treatment, and services provided to her.”

As a result of the ruling, the estate took the case to Florida’s Supreme Court, where Justices agreed to review it in June of this year. However, in late July, Lawson’s estate filed a formal notice with the court stating it was voluntarily dismissing the appeal because it had reached a mutually agreed upon settlement with the hospital. Despite this, the high court refused to dismiss the case on two separate occasions.

It is unclear what prompted the decision to finally discharge the suit, though just last week, Lawson’s estate filed a document stating it would not pursue any further action due to the settlement’s contractual agreement, which prevents any additional litigation surrounding the matter.

One day before the case was dismissed, attorneys for the hospital submitted a document seeking advice from the Supreme Court on how to proceed with the case in consideration of the resolution reached between Shands and Lawson’s estate, which includes a confidentiality clause. The document read, in part, “The undersigned attorneys, as officers of the court, understand they have a duty to present this case properly to the (Supreme) Court and believe that the earlier briefs are insufficient for that purpose. Respondent (Shands) wishes to fulfill its obligations to this court, but do not wish their actions to be treated as a breach of their client’s settlement agreement.”

The Supreme Court had previously denied requests for dismissal in September and November of this year. This latest decision overrides the November ruling and as of today, the matter is considered resolved.


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