Judge Dismisses Majority of Lawsuit Against Psychiatric Facility After Patient Shooting

On Monday, in the Western District of Virginia, Judge Norman K. Moon dismissed all but the battery claim of a lawsuit brought by the family of a patient shot four times by a security guard employed by a psychiatric facility, Centra Health. 

The court laid out the pertinent facts as follows: The injured patient, diagnosed with bipolar schizoaffective disorder, arrived at the local emergency room in central Virginia after experiencing suicidal thoughts, sleeplessness, lack of appetite, and violent outbursts during a family vacation in Florida. Four hours after arriving at the emergency room of a local hospital, an emergency custody order was entered, pursuant to Virginia state law, that allowed the patient to be relocated from the emergency room to a local psychiatric facility — in this case, Centra Health — pending further evaluation and examination for treatment options.

The security guard at issue, authorized to carry a firearm by a Virginia legislative program, facilitated the transfer of the patient with the assistance of two other unnamed security guards. Over the next few hours, conflict heightened between the alleged injuring guard and the patient. The plaintiff alleged that the guard antagonized the patient by purporting that the patient was under arrest, attempting to mandate the patient to voluntarily admit himself into a longer-term stint at the defendant’s facility (in lieu of the emergency custody order, which can expire), and enraging the patient into a state of psychosis by referencing inappropriate discussions of religion and morality. 

Once the conflict between the armed guard and the patient hit a climax, the patient removed a taser from the guard, unsuccessfully attacked another employee with said taser, and attempted to flee. As a result, the guard shot the patient three times while fleeing, adding a fourth shot once the patient was down but attempting to stand up once more.

The patient was permanently disabled, resulting in the family bringing a multi-count lawsuit against Centra Health for violation of the 4th Amendment due to unlawful seizure, and battery and negligence under Virginia state law. The defendant sought to dismiss all claims.

The court agreed with the defendant on the 4th Amendment and negligence claims, as the court ruled that the plaintiff was free to leave at any time prior to the issuance of the emergency custody order, meaning there was no seizure. Additionally, the court summarily held that the plaintiff simply failed to allege adequate facts to support the negligence claims. 

As to the battery claim, the district judge determined that the fourth shot was where the illegality, at least for the purpose of pleadings during a motion to dismiss, for battery was properly alleged in the plaintiff’s complaint and would therefore survive dismissal. Judge Moon explained that state-approved armed security guards are allowed the use of objectively reasonable — including deadly — force when the situation presents risk of serious physical harm to the guard or others in the vicinity of the putative violent actor. However, the court noted that the consideration of what is objectively reasonable force can change on a moment’s notice, including between individual shots fired. As such, the court concluded, the first three shots were objectively reasonable, and legally permissible, as the thrice firing of shots operated to neutralize the patient before he potentially harmed others, as said patient had moments prior attacked the guard and the medical staffer. The fourth shot, the court stated, is less clear as to illegality under Virginia battery law, as the patient purportedly was shot while attempting to get up off the ground and not while engaging in additional violence. 

The plaintiff is represented by James River Legal and Michie Hamlett. The defendant is represented by Woods Rogers.