DETROIT – A federal appeals court broke new ground Monday in declaring that a Michigan hospital can be sued for releasing a man who killed his wife 10 days later.
The estate of Marie Moses Irons can sue Providence Hospital under a federal law that requires hospitals to stabilize patients if an emergency condition exists, the 6th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals said.
A three-judge panel ruled in favor of Irons' estate, although it couldn't find any precedent for allowing a non-patient who alleges harm to sue.
"We recognize that our interpretation ... may have consequences for hospitals that Congress may or may not have considered or intended," Judge Eric Clay wrote. "However, our duty is only to read the statute as it is written."
Quoting the law, Clay said it applies to "any individual" who suffers personal harm.
Christopher Howard, now 42, was physically ill, making threats and showing signs of mental illness when Irons took him to Providence's emergency room in Southfield in December 2002.
On Howard's fifth day in the hospital, a doctor recommended a transfer to a unit for the mentally ill. The transfer, however, never occurred. He eventually was discharged, with another doctor saying he didn't need to go to the psychiatric unit.
Irons was killed in suburban Detroit's Oakland County, 10 days after Howard's release from the hospital. He's now serving a life sentence for first-degree murder.
In fighting the lawsuit, Providence said Irons' estate had no standing to sue. It also claimed that the Emergency Medical Treatment and Active Labor law does not apply because Howard was screened and did not have an emergency condition.
U.S. District Judge Anna Diggs Taylor ruled in favor of the hospital in 2007, but the new decision means the case returns to federal court in Detroit. Providence could seek a review by the full 6th Circuit court, though it's rarely granted.
St. John Health System, which runs the hospital, declined to comment. A message seeking comment was left with lawyers for the estate.
The three-judge panel said some issues in the case should be settled by a jury.
The "evidence still raises a dispute of fact with respect to whether Howard had an emergency condition on the day of his release and what the hospital's doctors believed when they released him," the panel said.