384 Mass. 38 (1981), Woodbridge v. Worcester State Hospital

Citation:384 Mass. 38, 423 N.E.2d 782
Party Name:Francis WOODBRIDGE, Sr., conservator, [ 1] v. WORCESTER STATE HOSPITAL et al. [ 2]
Case Date:July 09, 1981
Court:Supreme Judicial Court of Massachusetts

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384 Mass. 38 (1981)

423 N.E.2d 782

Francis WOODBRIDGE, Sr., conservator, 1



Supreme Judicial Court of Massachusetts, Worcester.

July 9, 1981

Argued April 8, 1981.

[423 N.E.2d 783] Michael N. Abodeely, Jr., Worcester, for plaintiff.

Nicholas P. Arenella, Asst. Atty. Gen. (Jonathan Brant, Sp. Asst. Atty. Gen., with him) for defendants.


NOLAN, Justice.

The plaintiff appeals from the dismissal of a tort action brought against the Commonwealth and Worcester State Hospital (hospital). 3 The sole question raised is whether, by the enactment of G.L. c. 123, § 23,

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inserted by St. 1970, c. 888, § 4, which enunciates certain rights of patients in the care of the Department of Mental Health (department), the Commonwealth has consented to answer in damages for a denial of those rights. Because we conclude that the Legislature, in enacting G.L. c. 123, § 23, intended no waiver of sovereign immunity, we affirm the dismissal of this action against the State defendants.

We treat the action of the trial judge as a dismissal for failure to state a claim on which relief can be granted, 4 and thus assume the truth of the plaintiff's allegations. See Morash & Sons v. Commonwealth, 363 Mass. 612, 613, 296 N.E.2d 461 (1973); Mass.R.Civ.P. 12(b)(6), 365 Mass. 754 (1974).

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The plaintiff is the conservator of the estate of Francis Woodbridge, Jr. (Woodbridge). Woodbridge's adult life has been marked by recurring periods of acute mental illness. On the afternoon of February 27, 1977, Woodbridge, believing that he might be suffering a relapse of his illness, voluntarily sought treatment at the hospital. It is unclear what transpired between the time of his arrival and approximately 7 P. M. By that time, however, Woodbridge's behavior had become violent and disruptive. A member of the hospital's medical staff authorized the use of physical restraint, and Woodbridge was stripped of his clothing and placed in a locked seclusion room. One hour and forty-five minutes later, when Woodbridge was removed from seclusion, it was discovered that he had gouged the retinas of both eyes with his thumbs. An attempt at restorative surgery proved unsuccessful, and the prognosis is that Woodbridge [423 N.E.2d 784] will be completely blind for the remainder of his life. This tragedy, it is alleged, was caused by the defendants' negligent failure to exercise due care to prevent this act of self-destruction.

The plaintiff concedes that on the date of Woodbridge's injury, the Commonwealth and the hospital retained a general immunity from tort liability. 5 Furthermore, there is no claim that G.L. c. 123, § 23, or any other provision of that chapter, expressly waives sovereign immunity. Thus, the entire basis of the plaintiff's claim is that the Commonwealth's consent to suit appears by necessary implication from the enunciation of patients' rights in § 23.

Before addressing the plaintiff's arguments in detail, it is useful to place § 23 in the statutory context in which it appears. The section was enacted as one aspect of a general revision of the laws relating to the treatment and commitment of the mentally ill and mentally retarded. See St. 1970, c. 888, § 4. The impetus for this reform was an increasing

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awareness of the inadequacies, both legal and practical, of then existing legislation in these areas. See the Governor's Message introducing the Mental Health Reform Act of 1970, 1970 House Doc. No. 5021. See generally Walker, Mental Health Law Reform in Massachusetts, 53 B.U.L.Rev. 986, 986-988 (1973).

Consistent with its broad purposes, G.L. c. 123 includes several provisions designed to establish the permissible limits on certain forms of treatment. In particular, § 21 limits the use of physical restraints, including seclusion (see G.L. c. 123, § 1), to emergencies, and provides procedural safeguards to be observed in cases in which it is necessary. Similarly, § 23 lists certain patient rights, or privileges, including the right to send or receive mail, receive visitors, retain certain personal property, and to refuse certain forms of treatment. That section further states that patients shall have "any other rights guaranteed by law" and "any other rights specified in the regulations of the department." By G.L. c. 123, § 2, inserted by St. 1970, c. 888, § 4, the department is required "subject to appropriation, (to) adopt regulations consistent with this chapter which establish...

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