Delaney v. United States Naval Hospital, The et al
ORDER granting 56 Motion for Summary Judgment. Signed by Honorable David C Norton on May 24, 2017.(span, ) (Main Document 68 replaced on 5/24/2017) (jbry, ). Modified on 5/24/2017 to replace with corrected document per chambers(jbry, ).
IN THE UNITED STATES DISTRICT COURT
FOR THE DISTRICT OF SOUTH CAROLINA
REBECCA DELANEY, as personal
representative of the Estate of Justin
THE UNITED STATES OF AMERICA,
This matter is before the court on a motion for summary judgment filed by
defendant the United States of America (“government”). For the reasons set forth below,
the court grants the government’s motion.
On February 24, 2012, Kalvin Hunt (“Hunt”), a Marine on involuntary leave
while appealing his dishonorable discharge, was accompanied to the Beaufort Naval
Hospital (“US Naval Hospital”) by Edward Ray (“Ray”), an employee of the Beaufort
County Office of Veteran’s Affairs.1 When Hunt and Ray arrived at the naval hospital,
Nurse Saundra Smith (“Smith”) came to offer assistance and meet with Hunt. While
Smith was in the process of interviewing Hunt and scheduling an appointment for him to
see a doctor the following Monday, Hunt began to rock back and forth in his chair and let
out an exasperated kind of moan. When Smith asked Hunt if he wanted to hurt himself,
he said that he did. At that time, Smith took Hunt and Ray to the emergency department.
Ray is now deceased.
Once in the emergency department, Hunt first saw triage nurse Janice McDonald
(“Janice”). When Janice asked Hunt whether he had thoughts about hurting himself, he
responded that he did, although he had no plan to hurt himself at that time. Janice
informed Hunt that he would be evaluated by a psychiatrist and, depending on her
judgment, a decision would be made whether to admit him. Janice turned Hunt over to
her husband Joe McDonald (“Joe”), who is also a registered nurse in the emergency
department. Joe accompanied Hunt to be evaluated by Dr. Christian Jansen (“Dr.
Jansen”). Dr. Jansen noted that while Hunt had suicidal thoughts and thoughts of hurting
others, he had no specific plans. At that time, Dr. Jansen called for a psychiatric
technician from the US Naval Hospital’s mental health unit to evaluate Hunt.
Arthur Manning (“Manning”), a psychiatric technician, evaluated Hunt and
recommended that Hunt be admitted. The on-duty psychiatrist, Dr. Beverly Hendelman
(“Dr. Hendelman”), accepted the recommendation and made the decision to hospitalize
Hunt. Dr. Hendelman then relayed her decision to Dr. Jansen. The plan was to admit
Hunt to nearby Beaufort Memorial Hospital because the US Naval Hospital did not
provide in-patient mental health treatment.
About the time that Dr. Jansen was in the process of determining bed availability
at Beaufort Memorial Hospital, Ray asked Joe if he and Hunt could go outside for some
fresh air, and Joe said that they could. Once outside, Hunt removed some items of
clothing and ran towards the front gate. A security guard saw Hunt running but did not
stop him. Ray attempted to pursue Hunt, but was unable to catch him. Ray approached
the front gate and described the events that had just occurred to a group of security
guards. A security guard called the Beaufort County Sheriff’s Department to report the
At the same time, the Town of Port Royal Fire Department was responding to an
emergency call at a nearby apartment complex. Hunt got into a still-running and
unattended fire truck and began driving it down Ribaut Road at high speed. Hunt
collided with several cars and struck and killed pedestrian Justin Miller.
On August 22, 2014, plaintiff Rebecca Delaney (“Delaney”) filed this suit as
personal representative of Justin Miller’s estate. Delaney brings causes of action against
the government for negligence under the Federal Tort Claims Act (“FTCA”).2 On
February 10, 2017, the government filed a motion for summary judgment on all of
Delaney’s claims. Delaney responded on February 23, 2017, and the government filed a
reply on March 2nd, 2017. This matter has been fully briefed and is now ripe for the
II. STANDARD OF REVIEW
Summary judgment shall be granted “if the movant shows that there is no genuine
dispute as to any material fact and that the movant is entitled to judgment as a matter of
law.” Fed. R. Civ. P. 56(a). “Only disputes over facts that might affect the outcome of
the suit under the governing law will properly preclude the entry of summary judgment.”
Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, Inc., 477 U.S. 242, 248 (1986). “[S]ummary judgment will
not lie if the dispute about a material fact is ‘genuine,’ that is, if the evidence is such that
Delaney’s complaint names the United States Naval Hospital as a defendant.
However, federal agencies cannot be sued under the FTCA. See Ross v. Fed. Bureau of
Alcohol, Tobacco, & Firearms, 807 F. Supp. 2d 362, 369 (D. Md. 2011); 28 U.S.C.
§ 2679. Therefore, the court substitutes the United States as the defendant for all causes
of action asserted against the United States Naval Hospital.
a reasonable jury could return a verdict for the nonmoving party.” Id. “[A]t the summary
judgment stage the judge’s function is not himself to weigh the evidence and determine
the truth of the matter but to determine whether there is a genuine issue for trial.” Id. at
249. The court should view the evidence in the light most favorable to the nonmoving
party and draw all justifiable inferences in its favor. Id. at 255.
“The party seeking summary judgment shoulders the initial burden of
demonstrating to the district court that there is no genuine issue of material fact.” Major
v. Greenville Hous. Auth., No. 6:12-cv-183, 2012 WL 3000680, at *1 (D.S.C. Apr. 11,
2012). Nevertheless, “when a properly supported motion for summary judgment is made,
the adverse party ‘must set forth specific facts showing that there is a genuine issue for
trial.’” Id. (quoting Fed. R. Civ. P. 56(e)). The plain language of Federal Rule of Civil
Procedure 56(c) “mandates the entry of summary judgment, after adequate time for
discovery and upon motion, against a party who fails to make a showing sufficient to
establish the existence of an element essential to that party’s case, and on which that
party will bear the burden of proof at trial.” Celotex Corp. v. Catrett, 477 U.S. 317, 322
(1986). “[C]onclusory allegations or denials, without more, are insufficient to preclude
the granting of the summary judgment motion.” Major, 2012 WL 2000680, at *1.
The government moves for summary judgment on all of Delaney’s claims.3
Gov.’s Mot. 1. Although somewhat muddled, the government appears to be arguing that
Alternatively, the government asks the court to grant partial summary judgment
on Delaney’s second cause of action which asserts negligence claims against the military
personnel who were guarding the gate of the U.S. Naval Hospital. Gov.’s Mot. 1. In her
response, Delaney abandons count II of her complaint. Pl.’s Resp. 1. The court strikes
those allegations in Delaney’s complaint, and does not analyze them further.
Delaney has not met the requirements for expert testimony outlined in S.C. Code Ann. §
15-79-125, and that even if Delaney had fulfilled that statutory requirement, the
government owes no duty to Justin Miller under the FTCA.
The FTCA provides “for ‘a limited waiver of sovereign immunity, making the
Federal Government liable to the same extent as a private party for certain torts of federal
employees acting within the scope of their employment.’” Wood v. Standard Prods. Co.,
Inc., 671 F.2d 825, 829 (4th Cir. 1982) (quoting United States v. Orleans, 425 U.S. 807,
813 (1976)); 28 U.S.C. § 1346(b). Since Delaney has brought this action under the
FTCA, she must establish the government’s liability “under circumstances where the
United States, if a private person, would be liable to the claimant in accordance with the
law of the place where the act or omission occurred.” Cantrell v. United States, 735
F. Supp. 670, 672 (E.D.N.C. 1988). The FTCA does not create new causes of action, and
“only serves to convey jurisdiction when the alleged breach of duty is tortious under state
law, or when the Government has breached a duty under federal law that is analogous to
a duty of care recognized by state law.” Goldstar (Panama) SA. v. United States, 967
F.2d 965, 969 (4th Cir. 1992); Rayonier, Inc. v. United States, 352 U.S. 315, 319 (1957).
In other words, the issue before the court is whether a private person could be held liable
in South Carolina if he committed the acts alleged in the complaint to have been
committed by the government agents, under the same or similar circumstances.
S.C. Code Ann. § 15-79-125 Requirements for Medical
The government’s motion raises the important threshold question of whether
Delaney’s cause of action sounds in medical malpractice or ordinary negligence. In
South Carolina, S.C. Code Ann. § 15-79-125 provides that a medical malpractice action
requires expert testimony to establish the duty owed to a patient and the breach of that
duty, unless the “subject matter of the claim falls within a layman’s common knowledge
or experience.” Dawkins v. Union Hosp. Dist., 758 S.E.2d 501, 504 (S.C. 2014). The
complaint states that “this claim is not brought pursuant to 10 U.S.C. § 1089 and does not
allege acts of medical negligence,” compl. ¶ 45, and Delaney contends that she has
alleged “negligent acts and omissions that are separate and distinct from those alleging
medical malpractice.” Pl.’s Mot. 7. The government argues that despite the wording of
the complaint, Denaley is attempting to bring a claim in medical negligence as opposed
to general negligence. Def.’s Mot. 14. The court agrees. While not every cause of
action against a medical provider is for medical malpractice, the complaint makes clear
that Delaney is alleging that the medical providers at the US Naval Hospital had specific
duties that were inseparably intertwined with their role as medical professionals—not as
laymen. Without fulfilling the requirements of S.C. Code Ann. § 15-79-125, which she
has not, Delaney’s negligence claim fails.4
In Dawkins, the most recent South Carolina Supreme Court case addressing the
expert affidavit requirement of S.C. Code Ann. § 15-79-125, the court emphasized that if
the patient receives “allegedly negligent professional medical care” then expert testimony
on the standard of the type of care is necessary, but if the patient receives “nonmedical,
administrative, ministerial, or routine care,” then it is an ordinary negligence action that
does not require any expert testimony. Dawkins, 758 S.E.2d at 504. In this case, the
Delaney’s second cause of action alleging negligence against the sentries and
security personnel stationed at the entrances of the US Naval Hospital at the time of
Hunt’s elopement would not require compliance with S.C. Code Ann. § 15-79-125, as
this cause of action is an ordinary negligence cause of action. However, in her response
Delaney abandons this count of her complaint. Pl.’s Resp. 1.
court finds that this is a medical malpractice claim masquerading as an ordinary
Of course, medical providers are still subject to ordinary negligence claims—the
simple fact that an incident occurred in a hospital and involved medical professionals
does not automatically make it a medical malpractice claim. The Dawkins court
discussed cases from a number of jurisdictions in reaching this conclusion. For example,
a patient’s claim against a hospital was an ordinary negligence claim when the hospital
served the patient a turkey sandwich infected with salmonella. Similarly, a patient’s slipand-fall claim against a hospital was an ordinary negligence claim when the patient
slipped in a puddle of water in the hospital restroom. Dawkins, 758 S.E.2d at 504 n. 2
(summarizing cases). The Dawkins court also explained that claims against a hospital for
injuries caused by falling ceiling tiles or improperly maintained hallways or parking lots
were ordinary negligence claims. Id. at 504. The differentiation of ordinary negligence
and medical malpractice claims is “subtle” and “depends heavily on the facts of each
individual case.” Id. Here, despite the wording in the complaint that her negligence
claim “does not allege acts of medical negligence,” Delaney asserts that defendant’s
duties included “recognizing signs that an individual may hurt others and ensuring
appropriate action is taken,” “[s]creening potential patients to determine whether
treatment should be provided,” “instituting precautionary measures to prevent injuries to
patients or others due to suicide, homicide, or elopement,” “[i]ntervening as crisis
counselors in situations requiring immediate psychological treatment such as substance
abuse, suicide attempts, psychotic episodes, and other instances.” Compl. ¶¶ 47(ii)-(vi).
Delaney’s claim is not a slip-and-fall that happened to occur within the confines of a
hospital or the consumption of a sandwich from the hospital cafeteria, the types of
ordinary negligence claims that the Dawkins court differentiated from medical
malpractice claims. Instead, it rests on the specialized knowledge that medical
professionals practicing mental health care possess about screening patients for serious
mental health issues and the need for implementing precautionary measures that may be
guided by those mental health issues.
Although it requires parsing out the specific timeline of facts on the day of the
accident—some of which is disputed between the parties—a review of the facts
demonstrates that Hunt had begun receiving medical care at the time of his elopement.
Before his elopement, Hunt had seen a triage nurse, Janice, who screened Hunt’s medical
chart to determine that Hunt had “suicidal ideations” and advised Hunt that he would be
evaluated by a psychiatrist and possible admitted to a hospital. Pl.’s Resp. 3. Joe then
turned Hunt over to be evaluated by Dr. Christian Jansen, an emergency room physician
who noted that Hunt revealed thoughts of hurting other people. Pl.’s Resp. 3. Dr. Jansen
then requested that a military psych technician conduct a mental evaluation of Hunt. The
psych technician evaluated Hunt and recommended that Hunt be admitted to the on-duty
psychiatrist, Dr. Beverly Hendelman. Pl.’s Resp. 4. Dr. Hendelman was informed by
phone that Hunt needed to be admitted. Pl.’s Resp. 4. It was at this point, more than two
hours after Hunt first entered US Naval Hospital and after being seen by multiple medical
professionals, that Hunt fled from the hospital and jumped into an unattended fire truck
and drove it out onto a road adjacent to the US Naval Hospital, striking and killing Justin
Miller with the fire truck. These facts fall squarely within a medical negligence claim.5
In sum, the court grants the government’s summary judgment because Delaney
has failed to produce expert testimony to show that the government breached an
established duty of care. For a medical malpractice action, a plaintiff must produce
expert testimony in order to establish duty and that expert testimony should demonstrate
“(1) the generally recognized and accepted practices and procedures that would be
followed by average, competent practitioners in the [practitioner’s] field of medicine
under the same or similar circumstances, and (2) that the [practitioner] departed from the
recognized and generally accepted standards.” Melton v. Medtronic, Inc., 698 S.E.2d
886, 893 (S.C. Ct. App. 2010). Delaney has produced no expert testimony about the duty
of care that medical providers owe a mental health patient with suicidal tendencies who
asks to step outside for “some air,” let alone the duty that medical providers owe to the
general public in the vicinity of a mental health patient with suicidal tendencies. Indeed,
Delaney has produced no expert testimony at all. As the court discusses above, a review
of the complaint demonstrates that Delaney’s claims against the US Naval Hospital and
its employees for their actions relating to Hunt’s care sound in medical malpractice as
It is unclear why the government did not raise the medical negligence argument
under S.C. Code Ann. § 15-79-125 at the motion to dismiss stage, which is the stage for
which this argument is better suited. In its 31-page memorandum supporting its motion
to dismiss, the government argues at some length that there is no subject matter
jurisdiction because Delaney claims that this is not a medical malpractice case under 10 §
U.S.C. 1089. ECF No. 14 at 22. At no point does the government discuss the notice of
intent and expert affidavit requirements of S.C. Code Ann. § 15-79-125. Since it’s hard
to believe that the government just discovered this statute, the court fails to see why this
argument was not brought up at the motion to dismiss stage. Although it seems unfair
that the government is bringing up the S.C. Code Ann. § 15-79-125 argument now, after
both parties have finished discovery and the case is ready for trial, the court must dismiss
the remaining cause of action in the complaint.
opposed to ordinary negligence.6 Accordingly, Delaney is required to comply with the
notice of intent and expert affidavit requirements found in S.C. Code Ann. § 15-79-125.
Delaney has failed to do so, and so her remaining claim for negligence against US Naval
Hospital must fail. Therefore, the court grants the government’s motion for summary
As an alternative basis for granting summary judgment, the government argues
that the medical providers in the US Naval Hospital owed decedent Justin Miller no duty
“To prevail in an action founded in negligence, the plaintiff must establish three
essential elements: (1) a duty of care owed by the defendant to the plaintiff; (2) a breach
of that duty by a negligent act or omission; and (3) damage proximately caused by a
breach of duty.” Vinson v. Hartley, 477 S.E.2d 715, 720 (S.C. Ct. App. 1996). While
the question of breach of duty is a factual question best left for the jury, “[w]hether the
law recognizes a particular duty is an issue of law to be determined by the court.”
Jackson v. Swordfish Inv., L.L.C., 620 S.E.2d 54, 56 (S.C. 2005) (citation omitted).
South Carolina does not recognize a general duty to warn of the dangerous propensities
of others. Sharpe v. S.C. Dep’t of Mental Health, 354 S.E.2d 778 (S.C. Ct. App. 1987),
If it looks like a malpractice case, swims like a malpractice case, and quacks like
a malpractice case—despite artful pleading by the plaintiff—it is probably a malpractice
Even if there were a duty, the government contends, the duty of care was not
established from the US Naval Hospital’s internal policies and procedures outlining the
proper protocol in handling patients who demonstrated signs of self-harm and harm to
others. Gov.’s Mot. 11–20. The court finds that the US Naval Hospital did not owe
Justin Miller a duty as a matter of law, and so it does not go into the analysis of whether
internal policies established the duty.
cert. dismissed, 366 S.E.2d 12 (S.C. 1988). Delaney argues that the government owed
Justin Miller a legal duty, and cites Bishop v. S.C. Dep’t of Mental Health, 502 S.E.2d
78, 82 (S.C. 1998), and Hardee v. Bio-Med. Applications of S.C., Inc., 636 S.E.2d 629
(S.C. 2006), for the proposition that a reasonably foreseeable third party who is harmed
by a patient’s actions may maintain a cause of action for negligence against a medical
provider. Pl.’s Resp. 7.
It is true that, in very limited circumstances, a reasonably foreseeable third party
can maintain a suit against a medical provider for negligence.8 That being said, a review
of the facts in Bishop and Hardee demonstrates just how limited those circumstances are.
In Bishop, following a grandmother’s involuntary commitment of the mother of the
victim child, the South Carolina Department of Mental Health determined that the
victim’s mother was not mentally ill and released her. The next day, the mother arrived
at the grandmother’s home and physically abused the victim child. The grandmother then
brought a negligence action against the South Carolina Department of Mental Health,
contending that the child was a foreseeable third party, and that the Department of Mental
Health owed a duty to the child to properly diagnose and treat the mother. See Bishop,
502 S.E.2d at 80. While the Bishop court recognized the possibility that a reasonably
foreseeable third party could bring a claim against a medical provider under certain
circumstances, it ultimately held that the Department of Mental Health’s duty to properly
While the court makes no finding on this issue, it does make note of the
government’s argument that Justin Miller is not even a foreseeable third party, given the
intervening event of Hunt stealing a fire truck—idling nearby with the keys still in the
engine—and driving some ways before running Miller over. Every freshman law student
is required to take Torts. On the first day of Torts, every law student has to be prepared
to discuss then-Chief Judge Benjamin Cardozo’s decision in Palsgraf v. Long Island R.
Co., 162 N.E. 99 (N.Y. 1928). This case is reminiscent of the factual situation in
Palsgraf. Alas, this court has never, and will never, be confused with Justice Cardozo.
diagnose and treat was owed only to the mother, and not to the child. See id. at 84. The
next time that the South Carolina Supreme Court revisited the duty owed to a foreseeable
third-party was in Hardee. In Hardee, the court held that where a dialysis clinic knew
that a patient could experience ill effects related to insulin shock, and that the patient was
suffering from low blood sugar following his dialysis treatment, the dialysis clinic owed a
duty to persons in the “general field of danger”—which the court interpreted to be the
“motoring public”—to warn the patient of the risks of operating a motor vehicle. Hardee,
636 S.E.2d at 631.
Delaney asks the court to interpret Bishop and Hardee as supporting the
proposition that the US Naval Hospital had a legal duty to keep Hunt safe—even though
he was voluntarily committing himself to undergo a mental health evaluation—and that
this duty extends to Justin Miller, a pedestrian who Hunt ran over with a stolen fire truck.
This seems to be a rather expansive interpretation of Hardee, which emphasized that its
recognition of a medical provider’s duty to a foreseeable third party was a “very narrow
holding.” Hardee, 636 S.E.2d at 632. Oblachinski v. Reynolds, 706 S.E.2d 844 (S.C.
2011) is the sole post-Hardee South Carolina Supreme Court case, and illustrates just
how cautious the South Carolina courts have been to extend the legal duty owed by a
provider to a non-patient third party. In Oblachinski, the South Carolina Supreme Court
interpreted Hardee narrowly and held where a doctor misdiagnosed a girl as being
sexually abused, and based on this misdiagnosis a third-party was then accused of sexual
abuse, the doctor did not owe a duty of care to the third party accused of sexual abuse.
The court finds Oblachinski to offer guidance on just how cautious the South Carolina
courts have been to extend the legal duty owed by a provider to a non-patient third party.
As discussed, South Carolina case law limits situations where a non-patient third
party can bring a medical negligence suit against a medical provider, and these facts do
not appear to fall within the recognized exception created by Bishop and Hardee to the
general rule. In such a relatively undeveloped area of law—and especially given how
cautious South Carolina courts have been to extend the legal duty to a non-patient third
party—the court is hesitant to make an “Erie guess”9 that the South Carolina Supreme
Court would find that US Naval Hospital owed a duty to Justin Miller.10 Accordingly, as
an additional ground for granting the government’s summary judgment motion the court
finds that the US Naval Hospital did not owe Justin Miller a duty as a matter of law.
Where there is no guidance in the state’s tort law regime regarding whether a
cause of action would be recognized under the facts of this case, the court must make an
“Erie guess” as to whether a potential cause of action exists. See Highlands Ins. Co. v.
Hobbs Group, LLC, 373 F.3d 347, 351 (3d Cir. 2004) (noting that where a state’s highest
court had not squarely addressed whether a legal duty exists under the particular
circumstances of the case, “under Erie principles [federal courts applying state law] must
predict whether that court would recognize such a duty under the circumstances
presented”). In doing so, “the federal court may consider a wide range of reliable
sources, including relevant state precedents, analogous decisions and reasoned dicta, as
well as the policies and doctrinal trends informing and emerging from those decisions.”
Id. at 351 (internal citations omitted).
The court offers this argument as an alternative basis to grant the summary
judgment motion. As explained in III.2, the court also grants the motion based on
Delaney’s failure to produce expert testimony to show that the government breached an
established duty of care as required by S.C. Code Ann. § 15-79-125.
For the foregoing reasons, the court GRANTS the government’s motion for
AND IT IS SO ORDERED.
DAVID C. NORTON
UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE
May 24, 2017
Charleston, South Carolina
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