A Feb. 7 report by the Lakeland Ledger said that involuntarily committed patients regularly slip away from four hospitals in the greater Tampa area before they can be stabilized or even examined. The article focuses on patients brought to hospitals under Florida’s Baker Act, which allows patients to be involuntarily committed and examined for up to 72 hours if they are believed to be mentally ill and a threat to themselves or others. The majority of the Tampa hospitals the newspaper examined had no serious problem with escapes, called “elopements,” the paper said. But four hospitals, all owed by private health system HCA Florida, routinely had one escape every month or two. At one hospital, the problem was so bad that the hospital hired private security to patrol its emergency room, a contract that has since been canceled.
The escapes are a problem because a patient must be violent, suicidal or otherwise a threat in order to be “Baker Acted.” The article says most escapes are resolved without violence — but in one case, a patient escaped twice and ended up in a standoff with police that killed both him and a sheriff’s deputy. After that incident, a spokesperson for HCA Florida told the Northwest Florida Daily News that “we don’t lock people up.” But an expert on the Baker Act disagreed in the article, pointing out that the law gives health care organizations the right to restrain people who pose an escape risk. Patient advocate Judy Turnbaugh of NAMI Pinellas County had another theory: Hospitals that don’t want the costs of caring for medically uninsured patients turn a blind eye when they try to escape.
Regardless of whether the cause is economics or bad decisions, it’s clear that this is a problem. People are hospitalized under the Baker Act because there’s evidence that they may commit suicide, overdose or cause serious harm to others. Failure to adequately supervise such a patient might not be a crime in Florida, but it’s a highly foreseeable risk. It is also medical malpractice, or psychiatric malpractice, when the hospital or staff members had a provider-patient relationship with that patient. If a hospital allows a patient to escape and commit suicide, or hurt others, the victims and their families — including the family of the escaped patient — have the right to pursue a Florida medical malpractice lawsuit against that hospital.
At Cohn, Smith & Cohn, we help clients throughout South Florida who have lost a loved one or been seriously hurt by the mistakes of health care professionals. Our experienced Miami-Dade medical malpractice lawyers have a strong record of successfully recovering the money our clients need to pay new medical costs related to their injuries and compensate them for a loss in the family or a permanent injury. If you or someone you love is a victim of psychiatric malpractice or any other kind of medical malpractice in Florida, we’d like to hear from you. To set up a free consultation with us today, please contact us online or call us at (954) 431-8100.