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Estate’s Claim for Intentional Infliction of Emotional Distress Related to Decedent’s Suicide Dismissed for Lack of Allegations of Extreme and Outrageous Conduct

James Respess, Individually and as Personal Representative of the Estate of Patricia Respess v. Travelers Casualty & Surety Insurance Company of America, et al
Case No.: ELH-10-2937 (U.S. District Court for the District of Maryland, March 15, 2011)

by Eric M. Leppo
Semmes, Bowen & Semmes (www.semmes.com)

In this recently issued opinion, authored by Judge Ellen Lipton Hollander of the U.S. District Court for the District of Maryland, the Court dismissed Plaintiff’s intentional infliction of emotional distress claim for failure to state a claim on which relief could be granted. Specifically, the Judge found that the allegations of the Complaint were “woefully deficient” in their effort to allege extreme and outrageous conduct.

The decedent, Patricia Respess, was the unfortunate victim of a physical and sexual assault while at her place of employment in 1987. As a result of this incident she suffered from a variety of psychiatric conditions, including post-traumatic stress disorder (“PTSD”), major depressive disorder, conversion disorder, and disassociative identity disorder. She received treatment from 1999 until her death in 2008 for these conditions, and the Defendants (as the workers compensation insurance carriers) continued to approve and pay her medical expenses pursuant to her workers’ compensation claim.

In January 2008, Mrs. Respess went to Sheppard Pratt for in-patient treatment for depression and anxiety. She was committed until April 25, 2008 when she was discharged to her home. Shortly before her discharge, her husband asked Sheppard Pratt counselors to place her in a step-down facility, in lieu of a discharge without supervision. Shortly after Mrs. Respess’ return home, a visiting nurse observed her in poor condition, and learned she was having suicidal thoughts.

The nurse believed that Mrs. Respess urgently needed 24-hour supervision. The nurse called the Defendants and advised them of Mrs. Respess’ suicidal thoughts, and stated her belief that 24-hour supervised care was needed. The Defendants did not authorize this treatment. Mr. Respess also wrote a letter to Sheppard Pratt regarding his wife’s deteriorating condition and requested she be placed back in a facility with 24-hour care. In early May, Mrs. Respess wrote a suicide note indicating she did not have the “fight . . . to challenge the Defendants anymore.” She overdosed on medication which led to coma. She died several days later.

Plaintiff alleged that the failure to provide 24-hour supervised care to Mrs. Respess, was “intentional and/or reckless and in deliberate disregard of a high degree of probability that emotional distress would result to Patricia Respess.” Respess at *6. The Defendant insurers moved to dismiss Plaintiff’s Complaint under Rule 12(b)(6) for failure to state a claim. They argued that the Complaint lacked factual allegations of “extreme and outrageous” conduct necessary to make out a claim for intentional infliction of emotional distress.

The Court noted that dismissal is mandated if the complaint does not allege "enough facts to state a claim to relief that is plausible on its face." Bell Atl. Corp. v. Twombly, 550 U.S. 544, 570 (2007). The Court then indicated that while intentional infliction of emotional distress is a recognized cause of action in Maryland, it is “rarely viable, and is to be used sparingly and only for opprobrious behavior that includes truly outrageous conduct.” Snyder v. Phelps, 580 F.3d 206, 231 (4th Cir. 2009).

In reviewing the allegations in a light most favorable to the Plaintiff, the Court still had to conclude that the allegations did not come close to satisfying the high burden of “extreme and outrageous” or beyond all possible bounds of decency. The Court noted that the Defendants had long known of Mrs. Respess mental condition, and was aware of her almost four (4) month in-patient stay at Sheppard Pratt. However, they played no role in deciding to discharge her, and there was no allegation that their purpose in denying the request for 24-hour supervision was to harass her into committing suicide.

The Court noted that Defendants are not the health care providers. Under the facts and the reasonable inferences drawn from them, the decision not to provide supervised care based on the request of the visiting nurse and a doctor who did not examine Mrs. Respess did not amount to extreme and outrageous conduct.


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