A California court of appeal recently affirmed a trial court’s granting of summary judgement on behalf of a medical clinic. In Stone et al v Palos Verdes Medical Clinic,[i] a plaintiff sought to recover due to injuries sustained after a physical altercation broke out between plaintiff and another patient, defendant Marco Moine, in the waiting room.
When the plaintiff arrived at the medical clinic on the day of the incident with his adult son, the waiting room was full to near capacity. The television was playing a news segment regarding a recent school shooting, watched by several other waiting patients.
After a few minutes, defendant arrived, checked in, and took the last remaining seat across from plaintiff. Plaintiff reported for the next five minutes, defendant appeared agitated, pacing and attempting to shake the television set. Another patient said he was watching the television and defendant went to the intake window and yelled that he wanted to change the channel. A staff member came out to the waiting room but would not allow the channel to be changed since other patients were watching.
After the staff member left the waiting room, defendant began arguing with the plaintiff and his adult son.[ii] Defendant then punched plaintiff, “slammed him to the ground” and punched him several more times.[iii] Intake staff heard the scuffle and called for the staff member that had entered the waiting room earlier, who came and separated the plaintiff and defendant, assisted by another staff member, within 30-45 seconds.[iv]
The plaintiff filed suit, complaining of premises liability, negligent supervision, intentional infliction of emotional distress, gross negligence, reckless misconduct, and negligence against Palos Verdes Medical Clinic, and assault, battery, intentional infliction of emotional distress, gross negligence and negligence against defendant.[v]
The clinic moved for summary judgment, arguing there was no duty to protect plaintiff in this circumstance, the attack was not foreseeable, and the clinic did not cause the attack.
The plaintiff alleged the medical clinic personnel should have intervened when it was obvious defendant was having a mental health emergency before he attacked anyone. They could have done so by isolating him or asking him to leave the premises, or they could have provided immediate assistance as soon as the attack began and immediately called 911 for assistance. [vi]
In his opposition to the motion for summary judgment, the plaintiff submitted a declaration of a medical expert who opined defendant was experiencing a mental health emergency, which should have tipped off medical clinic personnel that there was an increased risk of a physical alteration taking place. Objections to defendant’s medical expert were sustained and not challenged on appeal. Additionally, defendant had no criminal history and had been a patient of the clinic for several years, and the clinic’s employees had never witnessed any behavior that would cause them to believe an assault of this nature was likely. The clinic’s own expert psychologist submitted a declaration opining defendant had not been experiencing a mental health emergency at the time of the assault.[vii] The trial court granted the motion for summary judgment.
The appellate court affirmed the trial court’s opinion, noting plaintiffs’ proposed preventative measures were burdensome in light of the low foreseeability of defendant’s assault on the plaintiff. With regards to the clinic’s duty to take measures following the attack, the appellate court affirmed that it had fulfilled its duties to take minimal measures required by case law[viii] by breaking up the altercation and calling the police was not required.[ix] In summary, in this circumstance, the clinic fulfilled its duty to take minimal measures, by responding quickly and appropriately to an unforeseeable assault on a patient in its waiting room. Physicians and proprietors of medical clinics have a continuing duty to pay close attention to the existing patients and how their past behavior, medical history and current medications may suggest a propensity for assault, because if defendant had exhibited any similar behavior previously, the case likely would have been decided differently. Additionally, medical clinics need to stay vigilant when patients are grouped together in a crowded waiting room in order to be prepared to act quickly if needed – like the receptionist did in this matter.
[i] Stone, et al., v Palos Verdes Family and Immediate Medical Group, 2022 WL 4285610
[ii] Id at 1.
[iii] Id at 4.
[iv] Id at 2.
[v] Id at 2.
[vi] Id at 7.
[vii]Id at 2.
[viii] Morris v De La Torre (2005) 36 Cal.4th 260, 277.
[ix] Id. at 9.