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ROBERT D. RHINES v. FRANK B. HERZEL (10/05/78)

SUPREME COURT OF PENNSYLVANIA


decided: October 5, 1978.

ROBERT D. RHINES, ADMINISTRATOR OF THE ESTATE OF BEVERLY L. RHINES, DECEASED, APPELLANT,
v.
FRANK B. HERZEL, JR., M. D., JAMES C. POWELL AND HARRISBURG STATE HOSPITAL, APPELLEES. ROBERT D. RHINES, ADMINISTRATOR OF THE ESTATE OF BEVERLY L. RHINES, DECEASED, APPELLANT, V. DR. RENATO SALVA, DR. AURELIO MOSCOSO, ET AL., APPELLEES

No. 48 May Term, 1977, No. 29 May Term, 1977, Appeal from Order of Superior Court dated May 13, 1976, Affirming the Order of the Court of Common Pleas of Dauphin County at No. 99 March Term, 1974, and Order of Superior Court dated March 8, 1976, Quashing Appeal from Order of the Court of Common Pleas of Dauphin County at No. 150 March Term, 1976

COUNSEL

Richard C. Angino, Hurwitz, Klein, Benjamin & Angino, Harrisburg, John J. O'Brien, Jr., Elizabeth M. McKenna, O'Brien & O'Brien Associates, Philadelphia, for appellants.

Christian S. Erb, Jr., Jerd L. Hock, Harrisburg, for appellees.

Edwin L. Scherlis, Frederic E. Black, Philadelphia, for appellees, A. S. Tornay and Daniel Blain.

Glenn F. Gilman, Joseph W. McGuire, Harrisburg, for appellee, Philadelphia State Hospital.

Eagen, C. J., and O'Brien, Roberts, Pomeroy, Nix, Manderino and Larsen, JJ.

Author: Nix

[ 481 Pa. Page 166]

OPINION OF THE COURT

This is a wrongful death and survival action brought by the administrator of the estate of Beverly L. Rhines, deceased. The complaint alleged that the deceased, a patient at Harrisburg State Hospital, was killed by another patient, Henry Miller. Decedent's death, according to the facts alleged by plaintiff-appellant, was due to the failure of hospital personnel to provide for adequate supervision of Miller, a patient with known homicidal tendencies. Joined

[ 481 Pa. Page 167]

    as defendants in the cause of action were the superintendent of Harrisburg State Hospital, various staff psychiatrists, sundry hospital personnel, and the Commonwealth's Department of Public Welfare and Harrisburg State Hospital. The Court of Common Pleas of Dauphin County sustained appellees' preliminary objections and dismissed the complaint seriatim as to the various defendants, basing its decision on sovereign immunity, absolute immunity and conditional immunity.*fn1 The Superior Court affirmed. For the reasons that follow, we reverse the Orders dismissing the complaint and remand the case for proceedings consistent herewith.

The dismissal of individual defendants by the court below in accordance with the court's application of the refinements of the absolute and conditional immunity doctrines in Pennsylvania law must be reversed because of the mandate of Section 603 of the Mental Health and Mental Retardation Act of 1966*fn2 defining the scope of liability for both officials and employees acting pursuant to its terms. Freach v. Commonwealth, 471 Pa. 558, 370 A.2d 1163 (1977). The facts alleged in the complaint that individual defendants allowed a patient with homicidal tendencies, who required maximum security control, to associate with patients

[ 481 Pa. Page 168]

    who required no such supervision; that because of the lack of such supervision patient Miller was able to kill patient Rhines and conceal her body on the hospital grounds for several weeks thereafter are ones from which gross negligence could be inferred. These facts may also prove relevant to liability for conduct by officials or employees which is lacking in good faith or is false, corrupt, malicious or without reasonable cause, standards which were enunciated in ยง 603, Freach v. Commonwealth, supra, at 568, 370 A.2d at 1168.*fn3

We therefore hold that the orders sustaining preliminary objections on behalf of individual named appellees on the basis of official or conditional immunity must be reversed and the complaint reinstated.

In view of the fact that we have concluded that the preliminary objections of the named individual defendants including the superintendent of Harrisburg State Hospital and various staff psychiatrists should not have been sustained, we must address the question of the appropriate forum for the further consideration of this case. Section 401(a)(1) of the Appellate Court Jurisdiction Act of 1970*fn4 vests the Commonwealth Court with exclusive original jurisdiction of actions or proceedings against "the Commonwealth or any officer thereof, acting in his official capacity . . . ." (emphasis added)

In Opie v. Glascow, Inc., 30 Pa. Commw. 555, 375 A.2d 396 (1977), a case in which six employees of the Pennsylvania Department of Transportation were named as defendants in three trespass complaints arising out of an automobile accident,

[ 481 Pa. Page 169]

    the named defendants included one of the eleven District Engineers for the Department of Transportation and five other engineers functioning in various capacities under his supervision. Id., 30 Pa. Commw. at 560, 375 A.2d at 398. All of the defendants were held to be employees and not "officers" of the Commonwealth. Id. The defendants filed preliminary objections alleging, inter alia, that jurisdiction properly was with the Commonwealth Court and not with the Court of Common Pleas of Montgomery County. It was determined that

The term "officers," for jurisdictional purposes, should encompass only those persons who perform state-wide policymaking functions and who are charged with the responsibility for independent initiation of administrative policy regarding some sovereign function of state government. We do not believe that it was the intent of the General Assembly to give this Court original jurisdiction over cases where local courts can much more conveniently and properly make the determination as to the liability of state employees who function on an essentially local or regional basis, any more than we believe that the General Assembly intended to give this Court original jurisdiction regarding employees performing subordinate ministerial functions.

Id., 30 Pa. Commw. at 559-60, 375 A.2d at 398.

Opie was expressly followed in Fischer v. Kassab, 32 Pa. Commw. 581, 584-85, 380 A.2d 926, 928 (1977) which was expressly followed in Wallace v. Dept. of Public Welfare, 32 Pa. Commw. 615, 380 A.2d 930 (1977). In Wallace, Fischer, supra, was interpreted to "hold that [Commonwealth] Court's jurisdiction under Section 401(a)(1) is limited to cases in which the defendant officers are persons having statewide authority." 32 Pa. Commw. at 618, 380 A.2d at 931. The Commonwealth Court then made the following distinction of determinative significance to the present appeal:

Turning to the officers sued here, we observe first that . . . [the] Secretary of Public Welfare . . . and

[ 481 Pa. Page 170]

    the Commissioner of Mental Health are officers of the Commonwealth charged with administration of policy on a state-wide basis. We therefore have jurisdiction of the suits against these defendants. . . .

Although the Superintendent and trustees of [the] State Hospital may well be held to be high public officials . . . we lack jurisdiction to decide this question because they do not have state-wide policymaking authority and are not therefore "officers" within the meaning of Section 401(a)(1) of the Appellate Court Jurisdiction Act.

Id.

Thus, the present suit against the Superintendent of Harrisburg State Hospital, various staff psychiatrists, and sundry hospital personnel is indistinguishable from Wallace, supra, concerning the appropriate forum for this action. We find that jurisdiction lies with the Court of Common Pleas of Dauphin County and not with Commonwealth Court.*fn5 Therefore, the Order of the Superior Court affirming the Order of the Common Pleas Court of Dauphin County, which court sustained the preliminary objections of the superintendent of the hospital and other named individual defendants is reversed and the case is remanded to the Court of Common Pleas of Dauphin County for further proceedings consistent with this opinion.


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