News: CJ Exclusives

Court Rules In Negligence Case

Involuntarily committed person contributed to own assault, says court

Can someone who has been involuntarily committed as being a danger to themselves be barred from recovering damages in a malpractice case because they were also negligent by provoking other patients at a mental hospital to assault them? The answer, according to a recent ruling by the state’s second highest court, is that contributory negligence does indeed apply.

Eric Thornton was involuntarily committed to F. J. Cherry Hospital on May 16, 2000 after cutting himself about 20 times with a box cutter in order to obtain a narcotic painkiller. While at the hospital, Thornton falsely claimed that he had additional injuries in an attempt to receive narcotics and that he would inflict additional harm to himself to be put on painkillers.

The next day, Thornton was involved in an altercation with other patients in the television room at the hospital in which his leg was broken. Two staff members reported that Thornton help to provoke the assault.

Thornton subsequently filed a lawsuit against the hospital and the N.C. Department of Health and Human Services under the Tort Claims Act. He contended that the hospital and its staff deviated from the requisite standard of care, and that failure was the proximate cause of his injury.

The N.C. Industrial Commission, however, rejected Thornton’s claim. Thornton challenged the ruling before the N.C. Court of Appeals.

A majority of a three-judge panel of the appeals court affirmed the Industrial Commission’s decision, holding that its factual findings and conclusions of law were correct. Among these were that Thornton’s claim was barred by contributory negligence, that he himself was at least partially responsible for the injuries he suffered in the attack as he provoked the melee.

Judge Barbara Jackson dissented from the majority holding, finding, among other things, that the doctrine of contributory negligence shouldn’t apply in this case.

She noted that N.C. courts have defined contributory negligence as not exercising the “care an ordinarily prudent person” or that “the standard by which contributory negligence is judged is that of a reasonable person.”

To Jackson, exactly that definition created a problem in this case. “Thus, while plaintiff admits his role in provoking the attack, it defies logic to hold that an individual who has been involuntarily committed due to mental illness can be considered a ‘reasonable person,’ she wrote.

“Plaintiff was involuntarily committed because he was a danger to himself and because he was incapable of acting as a reasonable person. Thus, I believe that to hold plaintiff to the standard of a ‘reasonable person’ or an ‘ordinarily prudent person’ is improper, and his actions should not bar his claim of negligence.”

N.C. Court of Appeals decisions are binding interpretations of state law unless overruled by the N.C. Supreme Court. Because of Jackson’s dissent, the high court must hear the case should Thornton decides to further appeal.

The case is Thornton v. F.J. Cherry Hospital (06-1096).

Michael Lowrey is associate editor of Carolina Journal.