The opinion of the court was delivered by: HOLTZOFF
This is an action against the United States under the Federal Tort Claims Act for personal injuries claimed to have been sustained as a result of the alleged negligence of the employees of St. Elizabeth's Hospital, a mental institution maintained by the United States in the District of Columbia. The Court has separated the issue of liability for a separate trial, leaving the issue of damages to be determined immediately following it, if the plaintiff prevails on the issue of liability.
The plaintiff ran into a grocery store located near the hospital and then started to run out in order to escape being apprehended. Unfortunately, he broke through a locked glass door and injured his hand, and now sues the United States for damages. Promptly upon returning to the street he was apprehended by the attendants, who had been pursuing him. It is claimed on behalf of the plaintiff that the hospital was negligent in permitting him to escape and thereby to be injured during the period that he was in an escape status.
It is well established that a hospital is not an insurer of the safety of its patients. It is, however, under an obligation to use due care to provide for their safety. The general principle with regard to the liability of hospitals to their patients is discussed in Garfield Memorial Hospital v. Marshall, 92 U.S.App.D.C. 234, 239, 204 F.2d 721, 725, 37 A.L.R.2d 1270, where the Court of Appeals stated in an opinion written by Judge Wilbur K. Miller:
"In general it is the duty of a private hospital to give a patient such reasonable care and attention as the patient's known condition requires. This duty is measured by the degree of care, skill and diligence customarily exercised by hospitals generally in the community, and by the express or implied contract with the patient."
Under the Federal Tort Claims Act the liability of the United States is measured by the same standards, as would be the case with a private citizen or a private corporation.
It was stated in an able opinion by Judge Bratton of the Tenth Circuit in United States v. Gray, 199 F.2d 239, 242:
"It is the general rule that while a hospital conducted for gain is not an insurer of the safety of its patients against personal injuries, whether self inflicted or otherwise, it is required to exercise ordinary care for their welfare and safety against such injuries. No inflexible and unyielding yardstick can be laid down as constituting ordinary care or the lack of it in all cases. In each case, the question must be determined in the light of its own facts and circumstances."
A somewhat similar case was decided in the Eastern District of Virginia only a few years ago by Judge Walter E. Hoffman. That case, too, involved injuries sustained by a mental patient of a Veterans Hospital who had, without authority, left the hospital grounds and was killed by a moving train, White v. United States, D.C., 244 F. Supp. 127, aff'd 4 Cir., 359 F.2d 989. The Court stated at page 133:
"The hospital is not, of course, an insurer of a patient's safety and the ordinary rule is that the hospital owes the duty of exercising such reasonable care for their safety as their known mental and physical condition may require and in a proper case this duty may extend to affording reasonable protection against self-inflicted injury if the patient is unable to look after his own safety."
The attendant was not furnished any handcuffs nor was he armed with a nightstick or anything else. He was not in the position, therefore, to use any physical force except by his hands. The fact that he may have been warned that the patient was desirous of escaping is not significant because such threats and warnings are often received by a member of the hospital staff and turn out to be usual. As soon as the patient darted and started to run, the attendant and other employees chased him and finally apprehended him. The mere fact that the plaintiff was injured between the time he started to run and the moment he was apprehended a short time later does not give rise to the inference that there was any negligence. The Court is unable to discern any lack of due care on the part of the attendant in preventing the escape, considering the conditions under which mental hospitals operate.
As Judge Hoffman said in White v. United States, supra at page 134, "Risks must be taken with mental patients, otherwise the case is left as hopeless." In other words, escape of patients from mental hospitals is perhaps more prevalent today than was true of the old fashioned lunatic ...