Provider Liability; Claims by Third Parties

Mitchell v. State, 369 P.3d 299 (Idaho 2016)

Idaho Supreme Court rules that the victim of a shooting by a person with mental illness who had been discharged from treatment services by the state’s mental health services program may pursue a claim against the state that his injury was the result of a negligent termination of services.

Background: Gerald Simpson had been receiving mental health services from the Idaho Department of Health and Welfare’s (IDHW) Adult Mental Health program until he was released on June 23, 2010. On September 27, 2010, Simpson shot Ryan Mitchell in the back outside of a coffee shop. Approximately ten days after the shooting, psychologist Daniel Traughber, Ph.D., prepared a memorandum on behalf of the IDHW explaining the processes and procedures that were used to terminate mental health services, subsequent to budget cuts, in a way that “reduced the risk of harm to patients and/or the community.” In August 2012, the district court dismissed the criminal charges against Simpson due to Simpson’s lack of competency to stand trial. Shortly thereafter, Mitchell filed this suit alleging that the State violated Mitchell’s constitutional and victims’ rights and was negligent when it discontinued Simpson’s mental health services. The district court issued an order granting summary judgment to the State on all claims.

Holding: On appeal, the Supreme Court of Idaho held that Mitchell’s victims’ rights claim was properly dismissed, but that the claim for negligence had been dismissed in error. The court determined that there was insufficient admissible evidence for the district court to make a determination as to whether the decision to cut Simpson from IDHW's mental health services was operational or discretionary. Thus, the district court erred in holding that the State’s decision to close Simpson’s file was discretionary and therefore erred in granting summary judgment to the State on Mitchell’s negligence claim.

Notable Points:

Mitchell’s negligence claim turns on whether IDHW's decision to release Simpson from its Adult Mental Health program was a discretionary function or an operational function: If the State’s decision to discontinue Simpson’s mental health services was a discretionary function then it would entitle the State to immunity. Here, there were insufficient facts for the trial court to determine whether IDHW's decision to cut Simpson from its health services was operational or discretionary. The evidence did not indicate who made the decision to close Simpson's file or how that decision was made.

Found in DMHL Volume 35, Issue 2