Torts—Duty of County in Care of Outpatient Psychiatric Patient

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Cohen v. Maricopa County, 615 Ariz. Adv. Rep. 10 (App. Div. I, August 16, 2011) (J. Winthrop)

WHERE PATIENT DIED OF DRUG OVERDOSE AFTER RELEASE FROM COUNTY HOSPITAL COUNTY HAD NO DUTY TO PATIENT IN THE OUT-PATIENT CARE OF A FACILITY HIRED BY STATE AND NOT COUNTY Plaintiff's decedent had a drug problem. He was involuntarily committed to the Maricopa County hospital pursuant to a court order for a period “not to exceed 90 days.” Following the 90 days he was released into the out-patient care of Value Options which was under contract with the State to provide such care. This outpatient care was also pursuant to court order. Subsequently, plaintiff's decedent was found passed out on drugs and was taken to Meta Services urgent care center, a facility licensed by the State and under subcontract with Value Options. Despite a petition for a mental health detainer, the physician at Meta determined plaintiff's decedent did not require detention and released him. He overdosed and died the next day. Plaintiff sued Value Options, Meta and Maricopa County alleging wrongful death as a result of medical negligence and violation of Arizona's Vulnerable Adult statute. The County was sued on the basis of an alleged non-delegable duty and therefore vicarious liability for Meta's negligence. The County was granted summary judgment by the trial court and the Arizona Court of Appeals affirmed. The court of appeals found that because the court order set a boundary on Maricopa County's responsibility for the decedent's care and his death occurred thereafter while under the care of a third party that had no contractual relationship with the County the County had no duty to plaintiff's decedent. This result was further supported by the fact that as a practical matter the County had no control or right to control over Meta. This case represents yet another move by the Arizona appellate courts towards a practical application of comparative fault principles and away from legal principles that create vicarious liability without regard to actual acts or omissions by the party sought to be charged. Interestingly, in this case the court placed great emphasis upon the fact the State and not the County had a contract with Value Options without addressing the fact that the County is a political subdivision of the State.

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