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Court takes up doctor liability in psych clinic shooting

September 4, 2019
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FILE - In this March 8, 2012 file photo, paramedics and police carry a shooting victim from Western Psychiatric Institute and Clinic, in Pittsburgh. Pennsylvania's highest court said Tuesday, Sept. 3, 2019, it will determine if a woman shot seven years ago in the psychiatric clinic where she worked can sue the University of Pittsburgh over the assailant's treatment before the attack. (Justin Merriman/Pittsburgh Tribune-Review via AP, File)
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FILE - In this March 8, 2012 file photo, paramedics and police carry a shooting victim from Western Psychiatric Institute and Clinic, in Pittsburgh. Pennsylvania's highest court said Tuesday, Sept. 3, 2019, it will determine if a woman shot seven years ago in the psychiatric clinic where she worked can sue the University of Pittsburgh over the assailant's treatment before the attack. (Justin Merriman/Pittsburgh Tribune-Review via AP, File)

Pennsylvania’s highest court will determine if a woman shot seven years ago in the psychiatric clinic where she worked can sue the University of Pittsburgh over the assailant’s treatment before the attack.

The Supreme Court announced Tuesday it will decide whether a former Allegheny County judge made the right decision to dismiss the lawsuit by Kathryn Leight and her husband against the school and a physicians’ group.

The lawsuit concerns injuries suffered by Leight, a receptionist, during the March 2012 rampage inside Western Psychiatric Institute and Clinic in Pittsburgh by chemistry graduate student John Shick. Shick had been diagnosed with schizophrenia.

Shick, 30, killed one clinic employee, wounded Leight and injured several others before he was himself shot and killed. Leight suffered severe injuries to her chest and abdomen.

The justices will decide if doctors can be sued over a shooting incident after taking steps to have a patient committed involuntarily but not completing the process.

Messages seeking comment from the university and from the lawyer for the Leights were not immediately returned.

In December, the Superior Court upheld the dismissal of the Leights’ lawsuit against University of Pittsburgh Physicians and the university under the Mental Health Procedures Act, saying the law does not apply to voluntary outpatient treatment, which is what Shick received.

“While we sympathize with the Leights’ argument, this court cannot conclude that the mere thought or consideration of initiating an involuntary examination during voluntary outpatient treatment falls within the explicit scope” of the mental health treatment law, the Superior Court ruled .

Shick had enrolled as a doctoral student in biological sciences at Duquesne University less than a year before the attack but left that program after multiple complaints about unwanted and unacceptable contacts with women.

The Superior Court opinion documents a long list of contacts he had with doctors in the months before the shooting about a range of complaints that included depression, neck and ankle pain, vomiting and headaches.

Toward the end of 2011, Shick told a psychiatrist he had never had psychiatric treatment, but his mother informed the doctor he had been admitted for psychiatric care five times.

In late January 2012, less than two months before the shooting, a doctor described Shick as “floridly psychotic.” On Feb. 10, he showed up at a doctor’s office to have blood drawn and banged a baseball bat on the counter, waving it in what was described as a threatening manner.

Doctors talked in February about seeking a commitment petition, but that did not occur.

On March 7, the day before the attack, Shick received emergency care at his home for complaints about vomiting blood and eye parasites. He was taken to UPMC Presbyterian Hospital’s emergency room, where he demanded pain medication, refused to discuss his medications with doctor and then left, according to the Superior Court decision.

The next morning he brought two loaded handguns and extra ammo with him to the unguarded lobby at Western Psychiatric and began shooting.

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