Morris v. Steven Corder, M. D., Melanie Bassa, M. A., Martha Donahue, N. P., Northwood Health Sys., Inc., No. 20-0750

CourtSupreme Court of West Virginia
Writing for the CourtWOOTON, J.
Citation866 S.E.2d 66
Decision Date16 November 2021
Docket NumberNo. 20-0750
Parties Christopher MORRIS, individually and as Administrator of the Estate of Amy Christine Wade, Plaintiff Below, Petitioner v. Steven CORDER, M. D., Melanie Bassa, M. A., Martha Donahue, N. P., Northwood Health Systems, Inc., Mid-Valley Healthcare Systems, Inc., and John Does 1-5, Defendants Below, Respondents

866 S.E.2d 66

Christopher MORRIS, individually and as Administrator of the Estate of Amy Christine Wade, Plaintiff Below, Petitioner
v.
Steven CORDER, M. D., Melanie Bassa, M. A., Martha Donahue, N. P., Northwood Health Systems, Inc., Mid-Valley Healthcare Systems, Inc., and John Does 1-5, Defendants Below, Respondents

No. 20-0750

Supreme Court of Appeals of West Virginia.

Submitted: October 6, 2021
Filed: November 16, 2021


Benjamin L. Bailey, Esq., BAILEY GLASSER, LLP, Charleston, West Virginia, P. Gregory Haddad, Esq., Travis A. Prince, Esq., BAILEY GLASSER, LLP, Morgantown, West Virginia, Counsel for Petitioner.

Roberta F. Green, Esq., Justin M. Kearns, Esq., Shuman McCuskey Slicer PLLC, Charleston, West Virginia, Counsel for Respondent, Steven Corder, M. D.

Cy A. Hill, Jr., Esq., Ashley W. French, Esq., Cipriani & Werner, P. C., Charleston, West Virginia, Counsel for Respondent, Melanie Bassa, M. A.

Patrick S. Casey, Esq., Sandra M. Chapman, Esq., CASEY & CHAPMAN, PLLC, Wheeling, West Virginia, Counsel for Respondents Martha Donahue, N. P., Northwood Health Systems, Inc., and Mid-Valley Healthcare Systems, Inc.

WOOTON, J.:

866 S.E.2d 67

This is an appeal from the Circuit Court of Ohio County's August 26, 2020, order dismissing the claim of petitioner Christopher Morris, individually and as Administrator of the Estate of Amy Christine Wade (hereinafter "petitioner") against respondents Steven Corder, M. D., Melanie Bassa, M. A., Martha Donahue, N. P., Northwood Health Systems, Inc., Mid-Valley Healthcare Systems, Inc., and John Does 1-5 (hereinafter collectively "respondents") pursuant to Rule 12(b)(6) of the West Virginia Rules of Civil Procedure. The circuit court found that petitioner's claims for medical negligence are barred by his failure to allege that his decedent was "in the custody" of respondents at the time of her suicide.

After careful review of the briefs of the parties, their oral arguments, the appendix record, and the applicable law, we find that the circuit court erred in concluding that this Court's precedent requires a decedent to be in the "custody" of a health care provider to assert a claim for deviations from the standard of care proximately resulting in a decedent's suicide. Accordingly, we reverse the circuit court's dismissal of the case and remand for further proceedings.

I. FACTS AND PROCEDURAL HISTORY

In his complaint, petitioner alleges that his decedent, Amy Christine Wade (hereinafter "Ms. Wade"), received behavioral and mental health treatment from respondents for more than ten years, from January 1, 2008 through June 2018. She was diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia, borderline mental functioning, and panic disorder agoraphobia and treated with a combination of pharmaceuticals, clinical management, and counseling by respondents.

Petitioner alleges that on or around February 28, 2018, Ms. Wade's psychiatric condition began to rapidly deteriorate. Treatment notes thereafter allegedly reflect an increase in suicidal thoughts, auditory hallucinations, threatening visual hallucinations, and general emotional instability. On April 25, 2018, Ms. Wade allegedly made irrational claims about the death of her grandson and reported increased sadness, crying spells, decreased sleep, and increased worrying. On June 11, 2018, Ms. Wade's providers noted that she had a disheveled appearance, reported that she "doesn't sleep anymore," that her "life has been hell," and that she had three suicidal ideations in the week prior. On June 20, 2018, Ms. Wade reported that she had been in "such a state of panic" that she presented for treatment at an Emergency Room. Ms. Wade committed suicide on June 30, 2018.

Petitioner served a notice of claim and screening certificate of merit on each respondent pursuant to the Medical Professional Liability Act, West Virginia Code §§ 55-7B-1 through - 12 (2015 & Supp. 2021) ("MPLA") and filed his complaint alleging that the individual respondents deviated from the standard of care in their treatment of Ms. Wade.1

866 S.E.2d 68

More specifically, petitioner alleges that despite Ms. Wade's increasingly unstable presentation and reports of suicidal ideation, no changes were made to her treatment regimen—including medications, follow-up appointments, and specialist evaluations—nor was she referred for hospitalization in a crisis stabilization unit or admission to an inpatient psychiatric unit.

In response to the complaint, all respondents filed motions to dismiss pursuant to Rule 12(b)(6) of the West Virginia Rules of Civil Procedure, arguing that Ms. Wade's suicide constituted an intentional intervening act and precluded liability against respondents. In evaluating the allegations in the complaint, the circuit court highlighted that "[a]t no time was [Ms. Wade] in the voluntary or involuntary custody of any of the Defendants during the relevant time frame[ ] ... [and that] all services were rendered on an out-patient basis." Citing this Court's decision in Moats v. Preston County Commission , 206 W. Va. 8, 521 S.E.2d 180 (1999) and a subsequent memorandum decision, the circuit court found petitioner's failure to allege that respondents were "custodial caretaker[s]"—which the court perceived to constitute the "one exception to the general bar on suicide claims"—was fatal to her cause of action. The circuit court dismissed the complaint pursuant to Rule 12(b)(6) due to the complaint's "fail[ure] to allege that [Ms. Wade] was in the custody of any [respondent] at the time of her suicide." This appeal followed.

II. STANDARD OF REVIEW

"Appellate review of a circuit court's order granting a motion to dismiss a complaint is de novo. " Syl. Pt. 2, State ex rel. McGraw v. Scott Runyan Pontiac-Buick, Inc. , 194 W. Va. 770, 461 S.E.2d 516 (1995). With this standard in mind, we proceed to the parties’ arguments.

III. DISCUSSION

Although petitioner asserts three separate assignments of error,2 this case presents a relatively narrow issue of law regarding the scope of this Court's holding in Moats . The question presented is whether this Court's precedent holds that a negligence-based claim for professional liability for failure to prevent suicide is restricted to only those defendants who had a "custodial" relationship with the decedent. Petitioner argues that the circuit court misread Moats and that nothing in our caselaw limits a cause of action for failure to prevent suicide to only "custodial caretakers." He argues further that such a reading of our precedent would effectively void any duty of care to outpatient mental health patients, thereby nullifying the requirement of the MPLA that health care providers conform to the applicable standard of care. Respondents argue that it is petitioner who seeks to expand the law of this state as it pertains to "non-custodial suicide." Respondents urge that such an expansion is unsound from a public policy standpoint and vitiates the Court's long-standing treatment of suicide as an intervening cause barring liability.

We begin with an examination of Moats . In Moats , plaintiff's decedent was involuntarily committed to the custody of the Preston County Sheriff's Office for transfer to William Sharpe Hospital for a mental health evaluation, having attempted suicide the day prior. 206 W. Va. at 11, 521 S.E.2d at 183. While at the Preston County Jail office awaiting transfer, the decedent consumed bathroom cleaner which resulted in her death eight months later. Id. Charles A. Moats, on behalf of the decedent's estate, brought a wrongful death action against the county commission and a mental health evaluator, who testified in the decedent's mental hygiene hearing and left her in the jail office while he went to retrieve her commitment order. Id.

866 S.E.2d 69

In one of several certified questions to this Court, the circuit court queried whether the fact that the decedent committed suicide was an outright bar to Moats’ claims. Id. The Court began by recognizing that despite the fact that suicide has "generally" been treated as an intervening cause, "courts have allowed such actions where the defendant is found to have actually caused the suicide or where the defendant is found to have had a duty to prevent the suicide from occurring." Id. at 16, 521 S.E.2d at 188. Elaborating on the duty exception, the Court observed again that "generally" the exception applies where there is a "duty of custodial care" and the defendant knows that the potential for suicide exists but fails to take preventative measures. Id. Pertinent to the particular facts in Moats , the Court further noted that this exception had been applied to "jails, hospitals, reform schools, and others having actual physical custody and control over such persons." Id. This discussion forms the centerpiece of the circuit court and respondents’ insistence that only "custodial" suicide is actionable.

Importantly, however, the foregoing discussion from Moats is merely dicta. In answering the certified question, the Moats Court held as follows in a properly issued syllabus point:

Recovery for wrongful death by suicide may be possible where the defendant had a duty to prevent the suicide from occurring. In order
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