The death of Mary Miller, 71, at the hands of her knife-wielding upstairs neighbor was tragic, but not the fault of the hospital that released him from its psychiatric ward three weeks earlier on the recommendation of the man's doctor, the Supreme Judicial Court ruled today.
Tu Nguyen's family had brought him to Carney Hospital in January, 2012 because he was exhibiting bizarre, angry behavior, that included threats to kill a relative. A Boston Municipal Court judge signed an order to commit him to a psychiatric unit for up to six months.
But on Jan. 30, the hospital released him after his doctor said medication had brought him under control and he was no longer showing any signs of aggression. On Feb. 21, he broke into Miller's apartment on Codman Hill Avenue in Dorchester and, in front of her eight-year-old granddaughter, stabbed her to death. In 2014, a Suffolk Superior Court jury convicted him of second-degree murder, which means a sentence of life, but with the possibility of eventual parole.
Miller's family sued Carney for negligence, saying it should never have released him, at least not before the six months called for in the Boston Municipal Court order.
But the Supreme Judicial Court said the hospital owes nothing to the family, because under state law, its responsibility to preventing Nguyen from harming others ended when his doctor made a clinical decision he was OK to be released. If anything, the court said, the hospital could have gotten in trouble if it had held him after the doctor reported medication had brought his symptoms under control, under state patient-rights laws.
As the duty to hold "N" followed directly from the order of commitment, when his treating mental health professional determined that he no longer presented a likelihood of serious harm and ordered his release, the hospital no longer had actual control of "N" or the authority to hold him. In the absence of this special relationship, the hospital had no duty to hold, or otherwise to control, "N" three weeks later when he attacked the victim in her home.
Tu Nguyen was sentenced to life in prison in 2014 for the way he
On January 30, 2012, "N"'s treating physician examined him and determined that he no longer presented a serious risk of harm due to his mental illness. The physician noted that his behavior had improved with medication, he appeared to be at his usual "baseline" level of functioning, and his aggression towards other patients had ceased. Accordingly, under the terms of the order of commitment, "N" was released that day.
On February 21, 2012, "N" broke into the home of Miller, his neighbor, and stabbed her to death. Miller's then eight year old granddaughter was present in the apartment at the time; she was not attacked and was physically unharmed.