Judge dismisses most claims in civil suit arising from Western Psych shooting

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Susan Shick may have been able to do more to help her mentally ill son before he went on a shooting rampage two years ago at Western Psychiatric Institute and Clinic, killing one and injuring five, but that doesn't mean she was legally obligated to do so.

That's the ruling from Common Pleas Judge R. Stanton Wettick Jr., who this week dismissed all of the claims against the woman, as well as nearly all of the claims against the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center and a physicians group there stemming from the deadly shooting at the Oakland hospital two years ago.

In a 26-page opinion, Judge Wettick said the only claims filed by the four plaintiffs that can go forward are those against UPMC based on the system's ownership and control of Western Psych.

That means the only remaining claims against UPMC on behalf of Kathryn Leight and her husband, as well as two other plaintiffs, will be those alleging inadequate security and safety measures in Western Psych's lobby where the shooting occurred.

The plaintiffs could ask Judge Wettick to certify the case for an immediate appeal to the state Superior Court.

None of the plaintiffs' attorneys would comment for the story. A spokeswoman for UPMC also declined comment. Ms. Shick's attorney could not be reached.

Michael Schaab, a 25-year-old milieu therapist, was killed when John Shick entered the Oakland hospital and opened fire March 8, 2012. Officers from University of Pittsburgh responded and shot and killed Shick.

Several plaintiffs filed lawsuits in the case alleging negligence against UPMC and its physicians, as well as against Shick's mother for failing to exercise proper care over her son, who was schizophrenic.

According to the opinion, Judge Wettick found that Ms. Shick could not be held responsible for her son's actions. He quoted several sections of tort law, including "Duty of Those in Charge of Persons Having Dangerous Propensities."

"One who takes charge of a third person whom he knows or should know to be likely to cause bodily harm to others if not controlled is under a duty to exercise reasonable care to control the third person to prevent him from doing such harm."

Shick had a lengthy mental health history, including involuntary commitments in New York and Oregon.

Following two such commitments in New York, Judge Wettick noted, Ms. Shick agreed to take charge of her son and ensure he received necessary mental health treatment.

But she did not, he continued. She returned to her yacht, several hundred miles from her son "rather than more closely providing management, guidance and assistance to her son," he wrote. "While Ms. Shick made some effort to manage her son's mental health care, she wholly failed in that undertaking."

But, he continued, that does not make her liable under the law.

"Most of plaintiff's briefs describe factual allegations that may support a finding that Ms. Shick could have done more," Judge Wettick wrote. "While Ms. Shick is being criticized for her failure to take charge of her son, under tort law, she was not required to do so because tort law does not impose a duty on a parent of an adult child to control the conduct of that child so as to prevent the child from causing physical harm to another."

The plaintiffs' claims against UPMC and University of Pittsburgh Physicians, including breach of duty of care, alleged that Shick had been repeatedly treated by them -- beginning in December 2011 -- and that they should have known of his need for immediate treatment and had him involuntarily committed.

But Judge Wettick found that only if the plaintiffs prove "willful misconduct or gross negligence" can they succeed on a liability claim against the hospital and physicians for failing to have Shick committed.

Under the law, the judge continued, gross negligence only applies to "persons involved in the involuntary treatment of mentally ill persons and voluntary inpatient treatment of mentally ill persons."

Shick was never involuntarily committed in Pittsburgh, and he was never treated as an inpatient, the judge wrote, which means they are not liable under that provision of the law.

In a separate proceeding, eight plaintiffs who filed a lawsuit against Shick's estate agreed earlier this month to split $500,000 from a renter's insurance policy he had through State Farm. That settlement is unaffected by Judge Wettick's ruling.

Paula Reed Ward: pward@post-gazette.com or 412-263-2620. First Published May 28, 2014 12:56 PM

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