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JESSIE L. FARAGO AND SANDOR L. FARAGO v. SACRED HEART GENERAL HOSPITAL (07/10/89)

decided: July 10, 1989.

JESSIE L. FARAGO AND SANDOR L. FARAGO, APPELLANTS,
v.
SACRED HEART GENERAL HOSPITAL, APPELLEE



Appeal from the Order of the Superior Court entered July 23, 1987 at No. 3083 Philadelphia 1986 affirming the Order of the Court of Common Pleas of Delaware County entered October 16, 1986, at No. 83-149. Nix, C.j., and Larsen, Flaherty, McDermott, Zappala, Papadakos and Stout, JJ. Stout, Former Justice, did not participate in the decision of this case. Nix, C.j., joins the majority and files a concurring opinion. Larsen, J., files a dissenting opinion in which Papadakos, J., joins.

Author: Mcdermott

[ 522 Pa. Page 412]

OPINION

Appellants, Jessie L. and Sandor L. Farago, her husband, appeal from the order of the Superior Court*fn1 which affirmed the order of the Court of Common Pleas of Delaware County. The latter court denied appellants' post-verdict motions which were filed following an adverse jury verdict rendered in their lawsuit against appellee, Sacred Heart General Hospital.

The pertinent facts surrounding this appeal are as follows. In the early hours of October 14, 1982, Jessie Farago, at the time a thirty-two (32) year old mechanical engineer, was admitted voluntarily to the psychiatric unit of Sacred Heart General Hospital in Chester, Pennsylvania. Mrs. Farago, who was approximately three months pregnant, had a history of mental illness dating back to her college years. That morning Mrs. Farago experienced an acute exacerbation of her chronic schizophrenic condition. This episode prompted her husband to seek her admission at Sacred Heart.

After the initial evaluation by the admitting nurse and telephone consultation with the on-call psychiatrist, it was determined that Mrs. Farago did not require special observation. Routine orders, which included hourly physical checks, were prescribed by the staff.

The psychiatric unit at Sacred Heart is an open co-ed ward housed within the main building and designed to accommodate approximately twenty-two (22) patients. At around lunchtime, Mrs. Farago maintains that she was raped by a male patient in the bathroom that adjoined a

[ 522 Pa. Page 413]

    room on the ward referred to as a "quiet room."*fn2 Mrs. Farago and the male patient were discovered in the bathroom together after the incident by a physical plant superintendent. He in turn immediately contacted a mental health aide stationed on the floor. Mrs. Farago mentioned the incident to the aide in passing, however, she did not indicate that she had been raped by the patient. It was not until three days later that she claimed to another staff member that she was raped by this patient. Approximately eighteen days later Mrs. Farago informed her husband of this incident. In the meantime, her condition failed to stabilize and she began treatment with an anti-psychotic drug. The possible effects of this drug necessitated that Mrs. Farago undergo a therapeutic abortion at the Delaware County Hospital.

The Faragos instituted a civil action against Sacred Heart seeking compensatory and punitive damages for, inter alia, alleged negligence on the part of the hospital for failing to adequately supervise and protect Mrs. Farago while she was in the unit. The case proceeded to trial in the Court of Common Pleas of Delaware County before the Honorable Clement J. McGovern, Jr. and a jury of twelve. At the close of the evidence, the trial court instructed the jury to apply a willful misconduct or gross negligence standard to this case reasoning that Sacred Heart was entitled to limited immunity pursuant to Section 114 of the Mental Health Procedures Act (hereinafter "MHPA").*fn3 The jury returned a verdict in favor of the hospital. Appellants filed post-verdict motions with the court, which were denied. On appeal, the Superior Court affirmed the judgment and held that the trial court did not err in deciding that absent willful misconduct or gross negligence, Sacred Heart was entitled to the limited immunity afforded to it under the Act. Appellants

[ 522 Pa. Page 414]

    thereafter sought allowance of appeal to this Court, which was granted.

In this appeal we are asked to address two issues of first impression: the first involves an interpretation of the language of the limited immunity provision of the Mental Health Procedures Act to determine whether it is applicable to Sacred Heart General Hospital; the second issue involves a determination as to whether Sacred Heart's conduct comes within the scope of this provision.*fn4

In 1976, the General Assembly enacted the Mental Health Procedures Act*fn5 to provide procedures and treatment for the mentally ill in this Commonwealth. The policy of this Act is found in Section 102, which provides, in relevant part:

It is the policy of the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania to seek to assure the availability of adequate treatment to persons who are mentally ill and it is the purpose of this act to establish procedures whereby this policy can be effected . . . . Treatment on a voluntary basis shall be preferred to involuntary treatment; and in every case, the least restrictions consistent with adequate treatment shall be employed.

50 P.S. § 7102. Consistent with this policy to insure adequate treatment in the least restrictive environment, is a limited immunity provision from civil and criminal liability for specific decisions regarding the treatment of the patient. This immunity is available to a mental health provider absent willful misconduct or gross negligence. The relevant statutory language regarding this immunity is as follows:

[ 522 Pa. Page 415]

Court, the problem of specific provisions controlling general statutory provisions is not present in this case. See 1 Pa.C.S. § 1933. Consequently, we must interpret the MHPA so that its provisions and the provisions of the general statutory construction act are allowed to operate, absent a contrary, controlling specific provision. See Appeal of Yerger, 460 Pa. 537, 333 A.2d 902 (1975). We therefore may look to the general rules of statutory construction for guidance.

The word "person" as defined in the definitional section of the Statutory Construction Act "includes a corporation, partnership, and association, as well as a natural person" unless the context of the section it is used in clearly indicates otherwise. 1 Pa.C.S. § 1991. On the other hand, an "individual" is defined in this same section as a "natural person." Id. As mentioned above, the limited immunity conferred under this Act applies to specifically named individuals in addition to "any other authorized person who participates in a decision . . . ." 50 P.S. § 7114. Under these circumstances and absent a specific definition to the contrary included in the MHPA, it is clear that the General Assembly intended this provision to encompass organizational entities, including corporations, partnerships and ...


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