Psych Hospital’s Failure to Report Patient Had Escaped Not Proximate Cause of Violent Act Two Years Later

A woman seriously injured when a former mental patient threw a glass bottle at her leg filed a claim against the State seeking reimbursement of her medical expenses and damages for pain and suffering.


Two years earlier the mental patient had surreptitiously left an inpatient psychiatric center operated by the State. Hospital staff classified the missing patient as “left without consent” (LWOC), denoting an assessment that he was nondangerous and did not meet certain other criteria, rather than “escaped,” which would have required the hospital to contact the police for assistance in locating the patient.


The plaintiff alleged that the State negligently supervised the patient, who had a history of violence, particularly against women, and improperly classified his unauthorized leave from the hospital as LWOC, resulting in her injuries. The trial court dismissed the claim on the ground that the breach of any duty owed by the State to the plaintiff was not the proximate cause of her injuries.


The appellate division reversed, concluding that that the State’s carelessness in supervising the patient was the proximate cause of the plaintiff’s injuries. The court noted that despite the patient’s long history of violence, the State created the opportunity for the escape and, by classifying him as LWOC, absolved itself of the obligation to notify the police that a dangerous, violent and mentally unstable individual was on the loose. The claim was reinstated and remanded for a trial on damages.


The State appealed to the court of appeals, which reversed the decision of the appellate division and reinstated the trial court’s dismissal. The court held that the lapse of almost two years between the escape and the injury rendered any negligence by the state too attenuated and speculative to support a causal connection.


See: Williams v. State, 2012 WL 1429333, 2012 N.Y. Slip Op. 03231 (N.Y.  Apr 26, 2012) (not designated for publication).