Lavoie v. Manoharan, CV146027376

CourtSuperior Court of Connecticut
Writing for the CourtJoseph M. Shortall Judge Trial Referee
PartiesHeather Lavoie, Admin’x et al. v. Nachiyappan Manoharan, M.D. et al.
Docket NumberCV146027376
Decision Date27 November 2019

Heather Lavoie, Admin’x et al.
v.
Nachiyappan Manoharan, M.D. et al.

No. CV146027376

Superior Court of Connecticut, Judicial District of New Britain, New Britain

November 27, 2019


UNPUBLISHED OPINION

Judge (with first initial, no space for Sullivan, Dorsey, and Walsh): Shortall, Joseph M., J.T.R.

MEMORANDUM OF DECISION ON MOTION FOR SUMMARY JUDGMENT

Joseph M. Shortall Judge Trial Referee

On the afternoon of October 28, 2012 Michael Lavoie attempted suicide by ingesting large quantities of alcohol and medication. His attempt was unsuccessful, but it left him in a comatose state that led to his hospitalization at the defendant Bristol Hospital (hospital), first in the emergency department and then in the intensive care unit. Mr. Lavoie’s attempt followed his wife Heather’s having told him that she would be seeing a lawyer, with a view toward dissolution of their marriage.

Mr. Lavoie continued to be an in-patient at the hospital on October 29, sometimes in restraints and under sedation made necessary by his insistence on leaving the hospital and his resistance to hospital staff’s efforts to calm him and to persuade him that it was necessary for him to stay until he had been evaluated by a psychiatrist. That psychiatric evaluation, with the defendant Nachiyappan Manoharan, M.D., took place on the morning of October 30, 2012. After the evaluation was completed and Mr. Lavoie had promised to call the doctor’s office that afternoon to schedule an appointment, Dr. Manoharan approved Mr. Lavoie’s discharge by the hospital. He was discharged at or about noon on October 30, 2012.

Late that afternoon Mr. Lavoie took his own life.[1]

These facts are undisputed. The defendants have moved for summary judgment[2] pursuant to Practice Book § 17-44, which authorizes the court to enter judgment for the moving party "if the pleadings, affidavits and any other proof submitted show that there is no genuine issue as to any material fact and that the moving party is entitled to judgment as a matter of law."

The defendants seek summary judgment on two grounds. First, they claim that Dr. Manoharan "did not owe the decedent a duty of care to involuntarily commit him to the hospital." Second, the plaintiffs are "unable to raise a genuine issue of material fact that the alleged failure to involuntarily hospitalize the decedent would have prevented his suicide after his eventual discharge from the hospital."

I

"Practice Book § 17-49 provides that summary judgment shall be rendered forthwith if the pleadings, affidavits and any other proof submitted show that there is no genuine issue as to any material fact and that the moving party is entitled to judgment as a matter of law. In deciding a motion for summary judgment, the trial court must view the evidence in the light most favorable to the nonmoving party." (Internal quotation marks omitted.) Sherman v. Ronco, 294 Conn. 548, 553-54, 985 A.2d 1042 (2010).

"Summary judgment procedure is especially ill-adapted to negligence cases, where ... the ultimate issue in contention involves a mixed question of fact and law, and requires the trier of fact to determine whether the standard of care was met in a specific situation ... [T]he conclusion of negligence is necessarily one of fact ..." (Citations omitted; internal quotation marks omitted.) Michaud v. Gurney, 168 Conn. 431, 434, 362 A.2d 857 (1975). "The existence of a duty is a question of law and only if such a duty is found to exist does the trier of fact then determine whether the defendant violated that duty in the particular situation at hand." (Internal quotation marks omitted.) Neuhaus v. Decholnoky, 280 Conn. 190, 217, 905 A.2d 1135 (2006).

"In seeking summary judgment, it is the movant who has the burden of showing the nonexistence of any issue of fact. The courts are in entire agreement that the moving party for summary judgment has the burden of showing the absence of any genuine issue as to all the material facts, which, under applicable principles of substantive law, entitle him to a judgment as a matter of law. The courts hold the movant to a strict standard. To satisfy his burden the movant must make a showing that it is quite clear what the truth is, and that excludes any real doubt as to the existence of any genuine issue of material fact ... As the burden of proof is on the movant, the evidence must be viewed in the light most favorable to the opponent ..." Ramirez v. Health Net of the Northeast, Inc., 285 Conn. 1, 10-11, 938 A.2d 576 (2008).

II

"Duty is a legal conclusion about relationships between individuals, made after the fact, and imperative to a negligence cause of action." Ryan Transport, Inc. v. M&G Assoc., 266 Conn. 520, 525 (2003). "The issue of whether a defendant owes a duty of care is an appropriate matter for summary judgment because the question is one of law." Pion v. Southern New England Telephone Co., 44 Conn.App. 657, 660 (1997). "If a court determines, as a matter of law, that a defendant owes no duty to a plaintiff, the plaintiff cannot recover in negligence from the defendant." (Citation and internal quotation marks omitted.) Mozeleski v. Thomas, 76 Conn.App. 287, 290-91 (2003).

There are two independent components to the decision whether a legal duty exists. The court must determine "whether an ordinary person in the defendant’s position, knowing what the defendant knew or should have known, would anticipate that harm of the general nature of that suffered was likely to result." Mendillo v. Board of Education, 246 Conn. 456, 483 (1998). This is known as the foreseeability prong of the test for existence of a legal duty. Separately, the court must also determine "on the basis of a public policy analysis, ... whether the defendant’s responsibility for ... negligent conduct should extend to the particular consequences or the particular plaintiff in the case ..." Gazo v. Stamford, 255 Conn. 245, 250 (2001). The defendants explicitly eschew reliance on a foreseeability analysis. "Rather, the motion is based on the public policy prong of the duty inquiry." Reply Brief of Defendants, 6 n.3 (July 24, 2019) (defendants’ reply).

Thus far, the defendants’ duty argument is unexceptionable. But, in applying these principles to the plaintiffs’ claims, as articulated in the operative complaint,[3] the defendants set up a straw man of an argument and proceed to attack it. That is to say, the defendants claim that "the sole basis for plaintiff’s negligence action is that Dr. Manoharan should have involuntarily committed Michael pursuant to [General Statutes] § 17a-502(a)"; [4] Memorandum of Law in Support of Motion for Summary Judgment, 15 (May 8, 2019) (defendants’ memorandum); when an examination of the complaint demonstrates that is not the case.

Defendants make a strong public policy case against finding a duty on the part of Dr. Manoharan to commit Mr. Lavoie involuntarily. There is a well-established right on the part of legally competent patients to refuse medical treatment even when it is likely that death will occur in its absence, a right that has been recognized by the appellate courts of this state. See McConnell v. Beverly Enterprises-Connecticut, 209 Conn. 692, 701 (1989); Stamford Hospital v. Vega, 236 Conn. 646, 665-66 (1996); Wood v. Rutherford, 187 Conn.App. 61, 82 (2019). Add to that the near-impossibility of predicting future dangerousness, either to oneself or to another, a factor recognized by the expert physicians designated by the plaintiffs; see, e.g., defendants’ memorandum, exhibit H, transcript of Dr. Mack’s deposition of 2.4.2019, 298-99; and the case becomes stronger still. This court, however, is not required to decide, and does not decide, whether or not Dr. Manoharan had a duty to commit Mr. Lavoie involuntarily because the operative complaint alleges professional negligence in many other particulars.

The court begins with the premise that Dr. Manoharan’s duty to Mr. Lavoie was no different than that of any other health care provider, i.e., the...

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