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Singing River Health System v. Vermilyea

Supreme Court of Mississippi

March 15, 2018

SINGING RIVER HEALTH SYSTEM, JENNIFER THOMAS-TAYLOR, M.D., ALVA BRITT, R.N., BENJAMIN W. HUDSON M.D., AND EMERGENCY ROOM GROUP, LTD.
v.
TERESA VERMILYEA AND JULIE VERMILYEA KASBY AS THE WRONGFUL DEATH BENEFICIARIES OF RANDY VERMILYEA AND JULIE VERMILYEA KASBY, INDIVIDUALLY

          Date Of Judgment: 07/11/2016

         COURT FROM WHICH APPEALED JACKSON COUNTY CIRCUIT COURT HON. ROBERT P. KREBS JAMES E. LAMBERT, III JOHN A. BANAHAN JESSICA B. McNEEL A. KELLY SESSUMS, III MARC L. BOUTWELL TRIAL JUDGE

          ATTORNEYS FOR APPELLANTS: JOHN A. BANAHAN JESSICA B. McNEEL MICHAEL R. MOORE BRETT K. WILLIAMS A. KELLY SESSOMS, III JAMES E. LAMBERT, III.

          ATTORNEY FOR APPELLEES: MARC L. BOUTWELL.

          BEFORE KITCHENS, P.J., KING AND CHAMBERLIN, JJ.

          KITCHENS, PRESIDING JUSTICE.

         ¶1. Teresa Vermilyea and her daughter, Julie Vermilyea Kasby, filed suit against Singing River Health System, Jennifer Thomas-Taylor, M.D.; Alva Britt, R.N.; Benjamin W. Hudson, M.D.; and Emergency Room Group, Ltd., pursuant to the Mississippi Tort Claims Act for the wrongful death of Randy Vermilyea, the husband of Teresa Vermilyea and father of Julie Vermilyea Kasby (collectively, "Vermilyea"). Vermilyea alleged that Randy Vermilyea had been admitted to the Singing River Hospital following a suicide attempt and that the defendants had breached the standard of care by failing to assess his mental condition properly and prematurely discharging him, proximately causing his suicide minutes after his discharge. Julie Vermilyea Kasby, who had witnessed her father's suicide, asserted a claim for intentional infliction of emotional distress. The trial court denied the defendants' motions to dismiss for failure to state a claim. The appellants timely sought, and we granted, an interlocutory appeal. Finding that Vermilyea did state viable legal claims based upon Randy Vermilyea's death, we affirm and remand the case to the Circuit Court of Jackson County for further proceedings.

         FACTS

         ¶2. Vermilyea filed a complaint on October 8, 2015, and an amended complaint on November 13, 2015.[1] According to the amended complaint, on October 12, 2014, a severely depressed and suicidal Randy Vermilyea was standing on the ledge of the Pascagoula River Bridge, threatening to jump to his death. The amended complaint alleged that officers of the Jackson County Sheriff's Department arrived and spent ninety minutes pleading with him to leave the bridge. The amended complaint further alleged that, when Randy Vermilyea finally agreed to step off the bridge, the officers took him into custody and had him transported by ambulance to the emergency room at Singing River Hospital, where he was evaluated and released a few hours later. According to the allegations of the amended complaint, Randy Vermilyea was evaluated by defendants Jennifer Thomas-Taylor, M.D.; Benjamin W. Hudson, M.D.; and Alva Britt, R.N.; and then he was released from the hospital on his own, without shoes, and without hospital employees' having contacted any of his family members to inform them of his suicide attempt. The amended complaint alleged that, upon his discharge, Randy Vermilyea telephoned his daughter, Julie Vermilyea Kasby, for transportation, and the defendants never informed her of his suicide attempt. Finally, the amended complaint alleged that, within minutes of his discharge, Randy Vermilyea jumped to his death from a bridge in Moss Point on Highway 613.

         ¶3. In the amended complaint, Vermilyea alleged that the defendant medical providers had a duty to their patient, Randy Vermilyea, to exercise such reasonable care and attention as his mental and emotional condition required. Vermilyea claimed that the defendants had breached the standard of care by failing to conduct an adequate suicide assessment because, if one had been conducted, Randy Vermilyea would not have been discharged from the hospital prematurely. Vermilyea claimed that the failure to take adequate measures to assess Randy Vermilyea's mental state and keep him hospitalized proximately had caused his suicide immediately after his discharge. The amended complaint charged that the defendants had failed to assess and treat Randy Vermilyea's psychiatric condition, failed to hospitalize him, negligently and prematurely released him from the hospital, failed to take reasonable steps to prevent him from harming himself, failed to follow the standard of care applicable to a depressed and suicidal patient, and failed to inform Theresa Vermilyea or Julie Vermilyea Kasby of his attempted suicide and need for follow-up care. The amended complaint also alleged that the physicians and nurse had failed to recognize the definitive signs and symptoms of Randy Vermilyea's medical condition. Vermilyea claimed that Singing River Health System and Emergency Room Group, Ltd., were vicariously liable for the negligent acts and omissions of their employees. Additionally, Julie Vermilyea Kasby asserted a claim for intentional infliction of emotional distress based on her having witnessed her father's suicide after the defendants had omitted informing her that he had attempted suicide earlier in the day.

         ¶4. Singing River Health System and Jennifer Thomas-Taylor, M.D., answered and filed a motion to dismiss for failure to state a claim upon which relief could be granted pursuant to Rule 12(b)(6) of the Mississippi Rules of Civil Procedure. Dr. Benjamin Hudson and Emergency Room Group, Ltd., filed an answer and a joinder in Singing River's and Dr. Thomas-Taylor's motion to dismiss. Alva Britt, R.N., filed an answer and affirmative defenses in which she moved to dismiss the amended complaint for failure to state a claim. The defendants asserted that Vermilyea had failed to state a claim because, under Truddle v. Baptist Memorial Hospital-DeSoto, Inc., 150 So.3d 692 (Miss. 2014), recovery against a third party for a suicide is permitted only upon proof that the decedent had acted under an irresistible impulse, proximately caused by the defendant's intentional conduct, that had rendered him unable to discern the nature or consequences of suicide. Because Vermilyea's amended complaint alleged negligence, not that the defendants had committed an intentional act that had proximately caused an irresistible impulse in Randy Vermilyea to commit suicide, the defendants argued that the amended complaint should be dismissed for failure to state a claim.

         ¶5. After a hearing, the trial court denied the motion to dismiss, finding the case to be distinguishable from Truddle. The defendants jointly filed a petition for an interlocutory appeal of the denial of the motion to dismiss. This Court granted the petition and stayed the proceedings in the trial court.

         STANDARD OF REVIEW

         ¶6. A motion to dismiss for failure to state a claim under Rule 12(b)(6) raises an issue of law which we review de novo. City of Vicksburg v. Williams, 191 So.3d 1242, 1244 (Miss. 2016). A Rule 12(b)(6) motion tests the legal sufficiency of the complaint, and review is limited to the content of the complaint. State v. Bayer Corp., 32 So.3d 496, 502 (Miss. 2010). "On a motion to dismiss, 'the allegations in the complaint must be taken as true, and the motion should not be granted unless it appears beyond doubt that the plaintiff will be unable to prove any set of facts in support of his claim.'" Covington Cty. Bank v. Magee, 177 So.3d 826, 828 (Miss. 2015) (quoting City of Belmont v. Miss. State Tax Comm'n, 860 So.2d 289, 295 (Miss. 2003)).

         DISCUSSION

         WHETHER THE TRIAL COURT ERRED BY DENYING THE MOTION TO DISMISS.

         ¶7. The defendants argue that, taking the allegations of the complaint as true, Truddle v. Baptist-Memorial Hospital-DeSoto, 150 So.3d 692, is an absolute bar to Vermilyea's ability to recover for the suicide of Randy Vermilyea. Truddle involved Diane Truddle's claim against an internist and Baptist Hospital for the wrongful death of her son, Eric Carmichael, who had committed suicide after having been discharged from Baptist. Id. at 693. Upon his admission to Baptist, Carmichael was diagnosed with a gastric ulcer and other physical ailments and was prescribed the drug Reglan. Id. at 694. The night before his discharge, he became agitated and aggressive. Id. His mother told his treating internist that Carmichael did not want to be discharged because he had said that one of the medications had made him crazy, but the internist discharged him anyway. Id. At the follow-up appointment four days later, Carmichael's mother complained to the internist that Carmichael had said his medications were making him crazy. Nonetheless, the internist wrote him another prescription for Reglan. Id. Two days later, after telling a friend that he was tired of living, Carmichael committed suicide. Id. at 694-95. Truddle filed a wrongful death lawsuit against Baptist and the internist, arguing that Reglan had put Carmichael at a higher risk of suicide. Id. at 694. The trial court granted summary judgment to the defendants, and Truddle appealed. Id. at 693.

         ¶8. In determining that the trial court properly had granted summary judgment to the defendants, this Court discussed two lines of cases concerning a third party's liability for another's suicide. Id. at 695-98. The Court first reviewed the line of cases concerning the irresistible impulse doctrine in Mississippi, originally recognized in State for Use and Benefit of Richardson v. Edgeworth, 214 So.2d 579, 585 (Miss. 1968). Edgeworth was a suit for the wrongful death of Billy Joe Edgeworth, who had committed suicide after having suffered continuous, intense harassment by two justices of the peace who had used the criminal process of the courts wrongfully to collect civil debts. Edgeworth, 214 So.2d at 581, 584. The plaintiff's expert ...


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