Earle et al v. City of Huntington et al
MEMORANDUM OPINION AND ORDER granting Defendants St. Mary's Medical Center, Inc., Tammy Peyton, Tara Ramsey, Bobbi Adams, Melissa Blagg, and Andrea Heath's 301 MOTION for Partial Summary Judgment on Negligence and Wrongful Death and Defendants' 302 MOTION for Partial Summary Judgment on False Imprisonment; denying Defendants' 307 MOTION for Hearing on the motions. Signed by Judge Robert C. Chambers on 7/11/2017. (cc: counsel of record; any unrepresented parties) (jsa)
IN THE UNITED STATES DISTRICT COURT FOR
THE SOUTHERN DISTRICT OF WEST VIRGINIA
LUMUMBA EARLE, individually and
as the Personal Representative of the
ESTATE of ANNIE EARLE, deceased,
CIVIL ACTION NO. 3:14-29536
CITY OF HUNTINGTON, d/b/a CITY OF
HUNTINGTON POLICE DEPARTMENT,
a municipal corporation, et al.,
MEMORANDUM OPINION AND ORDER
Pending before the Court are two Motions for Partial Summary Judgment filed by
Defendants St. Mary’s Medical Center, Inc. (St. Mary’s), Tammy Peyton, Tara Ramsey, Bobbi
Adams, Melissa Blagg, and Andrea Heath (collectively Defendants) (ECF Nos. 301, 302). The
first motion addresses the allegations of negligence and wrongful death (ECF No. 301). The
second motion addresses the allegations of false imprisonment (ECF No. 302). Defendants also
moved the Court to Set a Hearing (ECF No. 307) for oral argument on the motions. The Court
held a Pretrial Conference on July 5, 2017 and finds another hearing unnecessary. The Court,
thus, DENIES Defendants’ Motion for Hearing (ECF No. 307). For the following reasons, the
Court GRANTS Defendants’ Motion for Partial Summary Judgment on Negligence and Wrongful
Death (ECF No. 301) and GRANTS Defendants’ Motion for Partial Summary Judgment on False
Imprisonment (ECF No. 302).
Plaintiff filed the instant case against Defendants, alleging claims of negligence, wrongful
death, and false imprisonment for the actions that led to Ms. Annie Earle’s (Earle) unfortunate
death on January 11, 2014.1 See Pl.’s Third Am. Compl., ECF No. 111. According to Starlight
Behavioral Health Services (Starlight), Earle had been diagnosed with “Schizophrenia, paranoia
type, PTSD, and Major Depressive Order.” See ACT Discharge Summary, ECF No. 298-2.
Earle was originally taken to St. Mary’s on January 10, 2014 for treatment for a head laceration.
See Clinical Notes Report, ECF No. 317-1, at 7.
In the early morning hours of January 11, 2014, Defendants prepared Earle for discharge
and contacted Earle’s family for transportation back home. Id. at 6. The Clinical Notes Report
indicates that the nursing staff called Earle’s family nine times to arrange transport without
response. Id. The nurses also called the Huntington Police Department to contact the family and
the hospital social worker to arrange alternative transport. Id. Although Earle expressed a desire
to leave the hospital, Nurse Melissa Blagg encouraged Earle to remain at St. Mary’s until someone
could transport her home safely. Id. at 2-3. The Clinical Notes Report specifies that Earle agreed
to stay through 3:00 p.m. that day. Id. at 2. Nurse Bobbi Adams filed an Application for
Involuntary Custody for Mental Health Examination (mental hygiene order) for Earle at
approximately 1:00 p.m. See Mental Hygiene Order, ECF No. 328-1, at 8. The application
remained pending when, at approximately 4:41 p.m., Earle decided to leave the hospital on her
own volition. See Clinical Notes Report, ECF No. 317-1, at 2.
The factual section herein reviews the same facts presented in a contemporaneous
Memorandum Opinion and Order regarding Defendants City of Huntington and Officer Josh
Nield’s Motion for Summary Judgment. The Court provides the most relevant factual
information to the partial summary judgment motions at issue and directs the parties to the
contemporaneous Memorandum Opinion and Order for a more thorough factual summary.
Nurse Blagg called Cabell County 911 at approximately 4:53 p.m. to report that Earle had
walked away against medical advice. See 911 Transcript, ECF No. 301-9; see also Clinical Notes
Report, ECF No. 317-1, at 2 (marking time called as 4:55 p.m.). Specifically, Nurse Blagg stated,
“[w]e had a patient that we were um trying to get a mental hygiene order on and um she left AMA
against medical advice.” See 911 Transcript, ECF No. 301-9. The Mental Health Commissioner
denied the mental hygiene order for insufficient facts that Earle was likely to cause harm to herself
or others; the denial was marked by voice order at 4:55 p.m. See Order/Notice, ECF No. 328-10,
at 2. However, Nurse Adams recorded that she received notice of the denial at 4:45 p.m. See
Clinical Notes Report, ECF No. 317-1, at 8; see also Bobbi Adams Dep., ECF No. 317-7, at 36:2022. Nurse Adams also noted that she called Nurse Blagg to inform her of the denial at around
4:48 p.m. Id. Ms. Donna White, Earle’s Starlight caseworker, reported that she received a
voicemail from Nurse Adams at 4:52 p.m., informing White that St. Mary’s did not have a mental
hygiene order over Earle, and Adams “did not believe they would get one.” Statement of Events,
ECF No. 328-3, at 2. When White returned the call at 4:55 p.m., Adams informed her that the
mental hygiene order had been denied. Id. No one called to update Cabell County 911 when the
mental hygiene order was denied.
In response to Nurse Blagg’s call, dispatch reported to the police officers that Earle had
walked away from St. Mary’s. See CAD Call Info., ECF No. 302-8, at 5. A citizen later called
Cabell County 911 to inform dispatch that Earle had entered a nearby O’Reilly’s Auto Parts store,
and dispatch radioed Huntington Police Officer Andre Jackson and Defendant Officer Josh Nield
(Officer Nield) to bring Earle back to the hospital.2 See Josh Nield Dep., ECF No. 301-12, at
A more thorough discussion on the events transpiring before Earle returned to St. Mary’s
appears in the contemporaneously filed Memorandum Opinion and Order on Defendants City of
Huntington and Officer Nield’s Motion for Summary Judgment.
21:6-9. Officer Nield responded to the store and transported Earle back to the hospital as directed.
Id. at 28:21-24 (describing that Earle was compliant during transport).
Once arriving at St. Mary’s, Officer Nield led Earle to the Nurse’s Station in the Emergency
Room. Id. at 29:8-9. Officer Nield approached Nurse Andrea Heath at the Nurse’s Station and
told her that he was returning the walkaway. Id. at 29:9-10. Nurse Heath advised Officer Nield
that Earle was no longer a patient at the hospital and that the mental hygiene order had been denied,
so Earle was free to leave.3 See Andrea Heath Dep., ECF No. 301-5, at 15:12-15; Melissa Blagg
Dep., ECF No. 301-2, at 79:9-15. During this discussion, Earle became agitated and started to
throw objects from the Nurse’s Station. See Josh Nield Dep., ECF No. 301-12, at 29:13-14 (“she
threw off some papers from the charge nurse desk. I tried to grab ahold of her at that point.”);
Andrea Heath Dep., ECF No. 301-5, at 18:2-3 (“she started throwing equipment around”).
Officer Nield grabbed both of Earle’s arms, stating that he tried to restrain her from causing further
disruption. See Josh Nield Dep., ECF No. 301-12, at 29:21-22 (“at that point I was able to get
ahold of her with both arms”).
Officer Nield and Nurse Heath agreed to take Earle to Emergency Room 26 away from the
other patients and staff. See Andrea Heath Dep., ECF No. 301-5, at 189:3-4 (“And the officer
said, ‘Is there somewhere we can go to talk to her?’”).4 Nurse Heath asked Earle if Earle would
like to go home or check back into the hospital as a patient. Andrea Heath Dep., ECF No. 301-5,
Officer Nield disagrees with this rendition, stating that he did not learn of the denied
order until Nurse Blagg informed him after Earle had been brought to an examination room. See
Josh Nield Dep., ECF No. 301-12, at 140:9-14. Although this is a factual determination for the
jury in regards to potential liability for Officer Nield, the timing of information does not change
the legal analysis for these Defendants.
The record is unclear as to who first suggested that Earle be removed from the common
area. Officer Nield recalled only that he could not have picked out Room 26. Josh Nield Dep.,
ECF No. 301-12, at 140:3-8. The factual dispute, however, is immaterial to the analysis of these
at 21:8-9. Earle never responded to Nurse Heath and maintained eye contact only with Officer
Nield throughout the entire encounter. Id. at 22:19-24. As Officer Nield spoke to Earle and
asked her about leaving, Earle became more aggravated. Id. Describing Earle’s conduct as
aggressive, Nurse Heath stated that Earle jumped on and off the bed repeatedly, moved around the
room, grabbed cords to some medical equipment, and began to shove a computer around in
attempts to turn it over. Id. at 22-23. Officer Nield recalled that Earle shoved the computer cart
towards him, but he managed to push the cart out of the way as he moved closer toward Earle.
See Josh Nield Dep., ECF No. 301-12, at 51:22-24. Soon after, Earle lunged towards Officer
Nield, hitting him in the face and knocking his glasses off. See id. at 53:19-21; Andrea Heath
Dep., ECF No. 301-5, at 25:2-4 (“I saw her hit him at least four times and knock his glasses from
his face, and she was still jumping around and I got scared.”).
At this point, Nurse Heath left the room and waited in the hallway because she was afraid
that Earle would become aggressive towards her. Andrea Heath Dep., ECF No. 301-5, at 25:2124. Officer Nield, therefore, was the only person in the room with Earle during the events that
led to her death. The parties dispute as to whether Officer Nield fell with Earle to the ground
during the attempt to arrest Earle for battery of an officer or whether Officer Nield slammed Earle
to the ground.5 Regardless of how Officer Nield and Earle landed on the floor, the altercation
ended with Officer Nield handcuffing Earle. After Officer Nield noticed that Earle was no longer
responsive, he called the nursing staff for assistance. Plaintiff does not allege that Defendants’
actions after this point were negligent. At Earle’s death, Earle was a sixty-six-year-old woman
who weighed 117 pounds. See Report of Death Investigation, ECF No. 298-11. Earle suffered
For a more detailed discussion on the differing accounts, look to the contemporaneous
Memorandum and Opinion.
from three fractured ribs.
The Medical Examiner declared Earle deceased due to the
laceration of the heart caused by the compression of the thorax. See Certificate of Death, ECF
Plaintiff’s claims against Defendants include negligence, wrongful death, and false
imprisonment. See Pl.’s Third Am. Compl., ECF No. 111. Defendants move for summary
judgment on the basis that the actions by St. Mary’s hospital staff were not negligent, but if they
were, Officer Nield’s actions served as an intervening cause to absolve liability. See Defs.’ Mem.
of Law in Supp. on Negligence, ECF No. 303, at 1. Defendants also move for summary judgment
on the false imprisonment claim, citing the lack of evidence to support Defendants’ alleged
unlawful detention of Earle. See Defs.’ Mem. of Law in Supp. on False Imprisonment, ECF No.
304, at 1.
To obtain summary judgment, the moving party must show that no genuine issue as to any
material fact remains and that the moving party is entitled to judgment as a matter of law. Fed.
R. Civ. P. 56(a). In considering a motion for summary judgment, the Court will not “weigh the
evidence and determine the truth of the matter[.]” Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, Inc., 477 U.S. 242,
249 (1986). Instead, the Court will draw any permissible inference from the underlying facts in
the light most favorable to the nonmoving party. Matsushita Elec. Indus. Co. v. Zenith Radio
Corp., 475 U.S. 574, 587-88 (1986). Any inference, however, “must fall within the range of
reasonable probability and not be so tenuous as to amount to speculation or conjecture.” JKC
Holding Co. v. Wash. Sports Ventures, Inc., 264 F.3d 459, 465 (4th Cir. 2001) (citation omitted).
Although the Court will view all underlying facts and inferences in the light most favorable
to the nonmoving party, the nonmoving party nonetheless must offer some “concrete evidence
from which a reasonable juror could return a verdict in his [or her] favor[.]” Anderson, 477 U.S.
at 256. Summary judgment is appropriate when the nonmoving party has the burden of proof on
an essential element of his or her case and does not make, after adequate time for discovery, a
showing sufficient to establish that element. Celotex Corp. v. Catrett, 477 U.S. 317, 322-23
(1986). The nonmoving party must satisfy this burden of proof by offering more than a mere
“scintilla of evidence” in support of his or her position. Anderson, 477 U.S. at 252. “Mere
speculation by the non-movant cannot create a genuine issue of material fact” to avoid summary
judgment. JKC Holding, 264 F.3d at 465.
Defendants filed two separate motions for partial summary judgment. For the negligence
claim, Defendants argue that the nursing staff’s actions did not amount to negligence as a matter
of law, but if the actions did constitute negligence, then Cabell County 911’s negligence and
Officer Nield’s actions served as intervening causes to Earle’s death. See Defs.’ Mem. of Law in
Supp. on Negligence, ECF No. 303, at 1. Correlating to this argument, Defendants assert that
Plaintiff’s wrongful death claim fails as a matter of law because Defendants’ actions were not the
proximate cause of Earle’s death. Id. at 18. Plaintiff argues that questions of negligence,
proximate cause, and intervening cause should be left for the jury as the record supports a verdict
in Plaintiff’s favor. See Pl.’s Resp. on Negligence, ECF No. 317, at 6.
For the false imprisonment claim, Defendants argue that Plaintiff cannot demonstrate that
Defendants unlawfully detained or assisted in the unlawful detention of Earle. See Defs.’ Mem.
of Law in Supp. on False Imprisonment, ECF No. 304, at 1. Plaintiff argues that Defendants’ call
to Cabell County 911 to report Earle’s departure led to Earle’s unlawful detention and that
Defendants’ actions before Earle’s departure and upon return supports a false imprisonment claim
that should go to the jury. See Pl.’s Resp. on False Imprisonment, ECF No. 328, at 2. The Court
will address each Motion for Partial Summary Judgment in turn.
A federal court sitting in diversity must apply state substantive law. Gasperini v. Ctr. for
Humanities, Inc., 518 U.S. 415, 427 (1996). In a negligence action, the plaintiff must provide
evidentiary support for four elements to be proven by a preponderance of the evidence: duty,
breach of duty, causation, and damages. See Carter v. Monsanto Co., 575 S.E.2d 342, 347 (W.
Va. 2002). “To be actionable, negligence must be the proximate cause of the injury complained
of and must be such as might have been reasonably expected to produce an injury.” Anderson v.
Moulder, 394 S.E.2d 61, 72 (W. Va. 1990) (citation omitted). Plaintiff’s negligence claim against
Defendants are further governed by the West Virginia Medical Professional Liability Act (the Act).
See W. Va. Code §§ 55-7B-1, et seq. (West 2017). The Act requires two elements for Plaintiff to
prove at trial: (1) that the “health care provider failed to exercise that degree of care, skill and
learning required or expected” of reasonable providers belonging to the same profession or class
acting in similar circumstances; and (2) that the failure constituted the proximate cause to the
plaintiff’s injury or death. W. Va. Code § 55-7B-3(a) (West 2017). Generally, “[q]uestions of
negligence, due care, proximate cause and concurrent negligence present issues of fact for jury
determination when the evidence pertaining to such issues is conflicting or where the facts, even
though undisputed, are such that reasonable men may draw different conclusions from them.”
McAllister v. Weirton Hosp. Co., 312 S.E.2d 738, 746 (W. Va. 1983) (quoting Ratlief v. Yokum,
280 S.E.2d 584, 587 (W. Va. 1981)). A defendant may be absolved of negligence liability when
an intervening cause “constitutes a new effective cause and operates independently of any other
act, making it and it only, the proximate cause of the injury.” Estate of Postlewait ex rel.
Postlewait v. Ohio Valley Med. Ctr., 591 S.E.2d 226, 233 (W. Va. 2003).
Plaintiff’s negligence claim centers around two events: the first focuses on Nurse Blagg’s
call to Cabell County 911, and the second focuses on the actions taken after Earle’s return to St.
Mary’s. The Court has reviewed the record provided and finds that some issues of fact remain,
as noted in the factual background section, but none of the disputes involve genuine issues of
material fact to inhibit summary judgment. When the facts are taken in favor of Plaintiff as the
nonmoving party, the record still does not warrant different reasonable conclusions. Although
Defendants’ actions reasonably could constitute negligence with the phone call to Cabell County
911, the Court finds that Cabell County 911’s erroneous relay of information constituted an
intervening act that proximately caused Earle’s return to the hospital. Further, the subsequent
actions by Officer Nield at the hospital could be viewed only as an intervening set of events that
absolve Defendants of liability in the chain of causation.
Considering first the phone call, the Court assumes without deciding that a reasonable jury
could find that Nurse Blagg’s decision to call the police and report Earle’s departure could
constitute negligence. Although Defendants cite to Brice v. Nkaru for the proposition that a
person cannot be liable for a police officer’s subsequent actions when that person provided true
and accurate information to the police, the Court finds that the factual circumstances presented
here distinguish this case from Nkaru. 220 F.3d 233, 238-39 (4th Cir. 2000) (“we are aware of
no authority supporting the novel proposition that a witness, by honestly providing information to
a law enforcement official, may be held responsible for the official’s execution of his independent
duty to investigate”). In Nkaru, the Fourth Circuit emphasized that “the critical question is
whether the witness provided the police with his honest or good faith belief of the facts.” Id. at
238. If a witness provided only factual information to the police, the subsequent actions of an
officer could not be attributed back to the witness. Id.
Here, there is evidence in the record that Nurse Blagg received notice that the mental
hygiene order was denied before making the phone call to Cabell County 911. If true, the
information provided in the phone call was false information—or at least misleading
information—because Nurse Blagg never mentioned that the order was denied. This question of
timing distinguishes this case from the facts of Nkaru. Here, a reasonable jury could find that
Nurse Blagg’s phrasing was negligent in stating that the hospital was “trying to get a mental order
on” Earle without qualifying the statement with the fact that such order had not yet been granted
or already had been denied. Moreover, Plaintiff’s expert opined that Nurse Blagg should have
never called Cabell County 911 to report Earle’s departure, stating that calling the police
constituted a breach of the standard of care.6 See Suzanne Billingsley Dep., ECF No. 302-13, at
169:12-21 (“they had no reason to call 911 because of the following; Ms. Earle was a voluntary
patient, she was not indicating any thoughts of hurting herself or others, she did not behave in any
ways that indicated that she could be a harm to self or others, the detention order had not been
decided on by the time she walked out the door and because she was a voluntary patient into the
Defendants argue that Plaintiff’s experts concede that no standard of care was violated
by calling Cabell County 911. See Defs.’ Mem. of Law in Supp. on Negligence, ECF No. 303, at
6. Defendants point to Dr. Chad Kovala’s statement for support: “There’s no standard to [call
911] so I don’t know—you can’t violate it if there’s no such standard.” Dr. Chad Kovala Dep.,
ECF No. 301-7, at 121:7-9. Dr. Suzanne Billingsley likewise did not point to a written standard
when opining that Nurse Blagg violated the standard of care. See Suzanne Billingsley Dep., ECF
No. 302-13, at 213:2-4. However, the Court views the evidence in favor of the nonmoving party,
and Dr. Billingsley stated that she could have found a written text supporting her opinion if
necessary. Dr. Kovala also stated that he had never heard of someone calling 911 in Nurse
Blagg’s situation, indicating that he believed it was against normal practice even if not a written
standard. Accordingly, the Court will construe the experts’ opinions to support a breach of
standard of care in this analysis.
hospital and she was not being treated for psychiatric symptoms as a psychiatric patient, she had
every right to liberty”); see id. at 212:12-14 (“It’s a violation of the standard of care to call 911 if
the patient was not exhibiting any symptoms or signs of harm to self or others …”). Accordingly,
a jury could find that Defendants’ decision to call Cabell County 911 to report Earle for leaving
However, even if a jury found Defendants negligent for making the phone call, the
erroneous relay of information by Cabell County 911 was the act that proximately caused Earle’s
return to the hospital. The Court can make the finding of an intervening cause when material facts
are undisputed and when a reasonable jury could not come to different, reasonable conclusions.
See McAllister, 312 S.E.2d at 746. Although typically left as a jury determination, when “all the
evidence relied upon by a party is undisputed and susceptible to only on inference, the question of
proximate cause becomes a question of law.” Harbaugh v. Coffinbarger, 543 S.E.2d 338, 346
(W. Va. 2000) (citation omitted). Here, the witnesses all agree that the police would have no
authority to detain Earle on a pending mental hygiene order. Thus, a call to Cabell County 911
on a pending order should not have resulted in Earle’s return to the hospital. The dispatcher at
Cabell County 911 erroneously told the police officers that the mental hygiene order had been
entered, which proximately caused Officer Nield to transport Earle to St. Mary’s. The Court finds
that Cabell County 911’s actions constitutes the effective and independent cause that led to Earle’s
return. The facts surrounding the dispatcher’s error are undisputed, and a reasonable juror could
not find Defendants liable for such independent negligence. Accordingly, the Court finds as a
matter of law that Cabell County 911’s negligence served as an intervening cause to absolve
Defendants of liability for Earle’s return to the hospital.
Moreover, Officer Nield’s conduct constitutes an intervening cause in the chain of
causation for the events occurring at the hospital. Officer Nield’s decisions to forcefully maintain
control over Earle, to take Earle to a private room, and to use force in efforts to restrain Earle
operated independently from Defendants’ actions. See Postlewait, 591 S.E.2d at 233. The
parties do not dispute that Officer Nield’s actions serve as a proximate cause to Earle’s death, and
the Court finds that these actions operated independently from Defendants’ acts to make Officer
Nield’s conduct the only proximate cause for Earle’s injuries. Plaintiff has failed to provide any
concrete evidence to support the reasonable foreseeability of Officer Nield’s actions to allow a
reasonable juror to find in Plaintiff’s favor. The record lacks evidence that shows Defendants
assisting Officer Nield in wrongfully detaining Earle or acting in a manner that contributed to
Earle’s death. Rather, the record shows that Defendants repeatedly asked Earle if she would like
to leave the hospital and even offered for Earle to check back in as a patient. The only conduct
amounting to a potentially negligent act by Defendants is the phone call to Cabell County 911, but
the traumatic events that followed were proximately caused by independent actors.
Plaintiff argues that Defendants should have prevented Officer Nield from taking Earle to
Room 26 or intervened during the altercation once in the room. Pl.’s Resp. on Negligence, ECF
No. 317, at 14-16. Both of Plaintiff’s experts claim that Defendants breached the standard of care
when not assuming control and authority over Earle as a patient. See Chad Kovala Dep., ECF
No. 322-2, at 143:20-24; Suzanne Billingsley Dep., ECF No. 317-6, at 92 (referring to standard of
care for patients). The Court rejects the experts’ premise that Earle was a patient at any point
upon return to the hospital before Earle received emergency treatment for the injuries caused by
Officer Nield. Nurse Heath told Officer Nield that Earle was free to leave because Earle was no
longer a patient at the hospital, and St. Mary’s could not detain Earle involuntarily without a mental
hygiene order. In Room 26, Nurse Heath again tried to get Earle to leave the hospital or
voluntarily check back in as a patient. Earle never responded to Nurse Heath, and the hospital
had no authority to involuntarily commit Earle to a mental evaluation. Although Dr. Kovala
stated that Earle should have received a medical screening exam pursuant to federal law once
exhibiting an emergent medical condition, the Emergency Medical Treatment and Active Labor
Act (EMTALA) sets a standard of care for physicians—not nurses—and does not function as a
mechanism for a federal medical malpractice suit. Chad Kovala Dep., ECF No. 322-2, at 152:724; see also Phillips v. Hillcrest Med. Ctr., 244 F.3d 790, 798 (10th Cir. 2001) (“EMTALA does
not set a federal standard of care or replace pre-existing state medical negligence laws.”); Dollard
v. Allen, 260 F. Supp. 2d 1127, 1131 (D. Wyo. 2003). The Court cannot find any evidence in the
record to support the claim that Earle became a patient once she returned to St. Mary’s.
Rather, the evidence is undisputed that Earle remained in the custodial control of the officer
at all times at the hospital. See Skip Holbrook Dep., ECF No. 301-14, at 50:8-10 (“As far as us
maintaining, you know, custody and control of [Earle], it would be until, you know, the call is
finished.”). Although Earle compliantly walked in with Officer Nield, as soon as the two arrived
at the Nurse’s Station, Officer Nield used force to restrain Earle. Officer Nield recalled that he
led Earle down the hallway to Room 26 while still restraining her arms. Once in Room 26, Officer
Nield continued to engage with Earle, trying to convince her to leave the hospital and eventually
engaged in a more serious altercation. St. Mary’s never resumed care over Earle, so Earle cannot
be considered a patient. Accordingly, Plaintiff’s experts’ opinions on patient standard of care are
Even if Earle could be considered a patient, however, Defendants did not have a duty to
intervene in Officer Nield’s actions whether at the Nurse’s Station or in Room 26. In E.B. v. West
Virginia Regional Jail, the Supreme Court of Appeals of West Virginia explained that a hospital
cannot be liable for the “the mere possibility of improper conduct” by an officer, even when
directed at a patient. No. 16-0090, No. 16-0092, 2017 WL 383779, at *5 (W.Va. Jan. 27, 2017).
In that case, the court affirmed the circuit court’s finding that a hospital did not owe a duty to the
petitioner who was allegedly raped by a correctional officer during hospitalization. Id. The court
found that “liability for negligence arising from a special relationship has been determined by what
is probable, not what is possible.” Id. As the petitioner could not present evidence that the
assault by the correctional officer was foreseeable, the hospital did not have a duty to prevent a
Similarly, the evidence in this record demonstrates the lack of
foreseeability of Officer Nield’s actions. Plaintiff’s experts can only suggest that injury possibly
could result from allowing Officer Nield to enter into a room alone with a person acting erratically
from mental illness. See Chad Kovala Dep., ECF No. 301-7, at 139 (describing a risk of injury
and a possibility of escalation); Suzanne Billingsley Dep., ECF No. 301-6, at 199-200 (describing
foreseeability that Earle could escalate behavior but only possible that Earle could die or suffer
serious injury). Nothing in the record suggests that Earle’s death was reasonably foreseeable at
any point in time. The Court, thus, finds that Defendants did not have a duty to “police the
police.” E.B., 2017 WL 383779, at *4. Plaintiff’s expert’s analysis that Defendants should have
called a Code Gray to restrain Earle according to protocol does not alter this finding. See Suzanne
Billingsley Dep., ECF No. 302-13, at 201 (discussing de-escalation techniques). If Defendants
had no duty to intervene or prevent a possible attack, Defendants could not breach a duty.
Accordingly, the Court finds that Plaintiff cannot maintain a cause of action for negligence
against Defendants as a matter of law because Cabell County 911’s error and Officer Nield’s
actions at the hospital operated independently of Defendants’ and constituted intervening causes.
Officer Nield’s conduct with Earle and Earle’s unfortunate death were not reasonably foreseeable.
Plaintiff has failed to provide concrete evidence to permit a reasonable juror to come to a different
conclusion. The Court, therefore, GRANTS summary judgment to Defendants on the negligence
As the Court granted Defendants’ Motion, the Court disagrees with Plaintiff’s
characterization that the motion was frivolous and denies Plaintiff’s request for costs and fees in
defending the motion. See Pl.’s Resp. on Negligence, ECF No. 317, at 17.
b. Wrongful Death
West Virginia Code governs whether a party can maintain a wrongful death claim against
another. See W. Va. Code § 55-7-5 (West 2017). “Whenever the death of a person shall be
caused by wrongful act, neglect, or default” and that action constituted the proximate cause of the
death or injury, then the person causing such action shall be liable for damages. Id. Proximate
cause “is that cause, which, in natural and continuous sequence, unbroken by any efficient
intervening cause, produces the injury, and without which the result would not have occurred.”
Evans v. Farmer, 133 S.E.2d 710, 715 (W. Va. 1963) (emphasis added). Generally, questions of
proximate cause are left for jury determination. See McAllister, 312 S.E.2d at 746. However, as
explained in the previous section, the Court finds that Officer Nield’s conduct proximately caused
Earle’s death and operated independently of Defendants’ actions to make his conduct an
intervening cause. An intervening cause becomes the only proximate cause for the subsequent
injury. See Postlewait, 591 S.E.2d at 233. Therefore, Plaintiff cannot sustain an action for
wrongful death against Defendants as a matter of law.
Accordingly, the Court GRANTS
summary judgment in favor of Defendants for the wrongful death claim.
c. False Imprisonment
In West Virginia, a false imprisonment claim requires a plaintiff to show “(1) the detention
of the person, and (2) the unlawfulness of the detention and restraint.” Riffe v. Armstrong, 477
S.E.2d 535, 552 (W. Va. 1996). For mental hygiene orders, “[t]he circuit court, mental hygiene
commissioner or designated magistrate may enter an order for the individual named in the
application to be detained and taken into custody for the purpose of holding a probable cause
hearing.” W. Va. Code § 27-5-2 (West 2017). Until an order is entered, however, the individual
cannot be involuntarily detained. Id. (permitting detention only after mental hygiene order is
granted). This Court addressed Plaintiff’s claims for false imprisonment in a prior Memorandum
Opinion and Order that denied dismissal and summary judgment. See Earle v. City of Huntington,
Civ. No. 3:14-29536, 2016 WL 3198396, at *6 (S.D.W. Va. June 8, 2016). At that time, the Court
pointed to various contentions of factual issues that prevented summary judgment.
(highlighting question of whether nurses knew of denial before calling Cabell County 911 and
possible intent to detain Earle). As discovery has now concluded, the Court finds that Plaintiff
cannot show concrete evidence to support a claim for false imprisonment to justify sending the
issue to a jury.
The parties have portioned out the false imprisonment claim into three separate events,
which the Court will address in turn. The first time segment focuses on Earle’s time at St. Mary’s
before leaving voluntarily. Defendants argue that allowing Earle to remain at the hospital for
transport home cannot amount to false imprisonment. Defs.’ Mem. of Law in Supp. on False
Imprisonment, ECF No. 304, at 6. Plaintiff concedes in the briefing that only the hospital chart
and recollections of the staff are sources of evidence for this claim. See Pl.’s Am. Resp. on False
Imprisonment, ECF No. 328, at 7. Plaintiff further admits that encouraging a discharged patient
to remain at the hospital does not constitute false imprisonment. Id. at 11. Rather, Plaintiff relies
on the inference that Nurse Blagg’s call to Cabell County 911 indicates an intent to detain rather
than encouragement to stay. Id. The Court finds this argument, which is contradicted by
evidence, unpersuasive.7 All the nurses and Huntington Police Department witnesses agree that
reporting merely that a mental hygiene order was pending over someone would not result in
detention. The medical charts and nurses’ recollections are consistent with simply encouraging
Earle to remain at the hospital for transport. The Clinical Notes Report indicates that Defendants
encouraged Earle to stay at the hospital, and Earle agreed each time. Plaintiff’s experts admit that
encouraging a person to wait for a safe transport does not constitute restraint or forceful detention.
See Chad Kovala Dep., ECF No. 301-7, at 92:6-9 (admitting that waiting in emergency room did
not violate standard of care); Suzanne Billingsley Dep., ECF No. 301-6, at 110 (disputing whether
Earle was allowed to remain but admitting that Defendants did not physically prevent Earle from
leaving). Nothing in the record supports Plaintiff’s contention that Defendants coerced Earle to
stay with the threat of law enforcement intervention,8 and Nurse Blagg did not call Cabell County
911 until eight minutes after Earle left the hospital. See Pl.’s Am. Resp. on False Imprisonment,
Although the Court noted that intent was a factual issue in its previous Memorandum
Opinion and Order, discovery has concluded, and Plaintiff now must offer some evidence in the
record to support its theory of liability. The record provided to the Court does not contain any
references—or room for plausible inferences—that Defendants acted intentionally to detain Earle.
Discovery has concluded, and any issue of intent is now mere speculation.
Dr. Billingsley opines that Nurse Blagg could have assisted Earle’s departure when Earle
asked to leave, but nothing in Dr. Billingsley’s deposition goes so far to state that Earle was
unlawfully detained at the hospital by Defendants. Dr. Billingsley questions how Nurse Blagg
encouraged Earle to remain at the hospital, but this assessment—without any evidence to support
or refute simple encouragement—does not defeat a summary judgment motion. See Suzanne
Billingsley Dep., ECF No. 302-13, at 160-161 (answering question on whether Nurse Blagg
prevented Earle from leaving as dependent on what words and tone were used to encourage Earle
to remain). Further, the Court agrees with Defendants that a false imprisonment analysis does not
focus on the subjective state of mind of the person allegedly being detained but the circumstances
as seen to a reasonable person. See Belcher v. Wal-Mart Stores, Inc., 568 S.E.2d 19, 30 (W. Va.
2002) (false imprisonment “depends upon the actions and words of the defendant, which must
provide a basis for reasonable apprehension of present confinement” (citation omitted)).
ECF No. 328, at 10. This is most evident by Earle leaving the hospital at 4:41 p.m. without
interference.9 The record lacks concrete evidence to support Plaintiff’s false imprisonment claim
that Earle was detained at the hospital. The Court, therefore, finds as a matter of law that
Defendants could not be liable for false imprisonment for Earle’s extended stay at the hospital.
The second time segment focuses on Nurse Blagg’s call to Cabell County 911.
Defendants argue that Nurse Blagg’s phone call did not facilitate Earle’s return to the hospital.
See Defs.’ Mem. of Law in Supp. on False Imprisonment, ECF No. 304, at 10. Although Nurse
Blagg’s call could be considered at least negligent if Nurse Blagg knew of the denied order before
calling, the phone call cannot make Defendants liable for false imprisonment. The phone call
relayed information that Earle had walked away from the hospital while the hospital had attempted
to acquire a mental hygiene order. The record shows that all witnesses agree that a police officer
could not detain Earle based on this information. Dispatch’s erroneous direction that the hospital
had an active mental hygiene order over Earle caused the unlawful detention, not the original call
to Cabell County 911.
Further, a person cannot be held liable for the police department’s subsequent unlawful
detention unless that person took a more active role in directing that action. In Lusk v. Ira Watson
Company, the Supreme Court of Appeals of West Virginia determined that “absent evidence that
the police officers in the present case acted at the direction of the merchant, the merchant cannot
be deemed liable for” the unlawful detention of a perceived shoplifter. 408 S.E.2d 630, 634 (W.
Va. 1991) (emphasis added). If someone calls the police to report factual information without
Plaintiff also argues that Nurse Adams’s filing for a mental hygiene order was enough to
show abuse of process and violations of standard of care to suggest false imprisonment. See Pl.’s
Am. Resp. on False Imprisonment, ECF No. 328, at 10. The Court finds this argument to be
without merit as the application for a mental hygiene order did not detain Earle unlawfully or
directing or instigating a person’s subsequent detention, that person cannot be held liable for the
police officer’s subsequent actions. Id. at 633. Although the Lusk case involves a merchant’s
liability for the detention of a shoplifter, the Court finds that the reasoning applies equally to the
instant case. Without evidence that Nurse Blagg directed or otherwise extensively involved
herself with the police activity in detaining Earle, Defendants cannot be held liable for false
imprisonment as a matter of law.
The last time segment focuses on Earle’s return to the hospital with Officer Nield. The
allegations in this time segment largely follow the same factual circumstances and legal arguments
presented in the negligence section. The Court has already found that Earle remained in Officer
Nield’s control and custody upon return to the hospital and that Defendants had no duty to police
the police. Officer Nield’s conduct in taking Earle to a private room and the altercation that
followed serves as an intervening and proximate cause. Plaintiff’s only evidence of Defendants’
involvement in the detainment of Earle is the suggestion that Earle be taken back to Room 26.
The Court finds that this suggestion, which the record is unclear as to who made the initial request,
is not enough to hold Defendants liable for false imprisonment. Providing access to a private
room for a police officer and a person in his physical custody does not prove detention, much less
the unlawfulness of any detention on the hospital’s part. Rather, the record is clear that upon
return to the hospital, Defendants told Officer Nield that the order had been denied and that Earle
was not a patient, so she was free to leave. Defendants further tried to communicate to Earle that
she could go home or check back in as a patient if Earle wanted treatment. Absent evidence
showing that Defendants caused or actively engaged in unlawfully restraining and detaining Earle,
any claim for false imprisonment is based on mere speculation. Therefore, the Court must grant
summary judgment in favor of Defendants.
After considering all three time segments, the Court finds the record devoid of factual
support to hold Defendants liable for false imprisonment.
The Court, thus, GRANTS
Defendants’ Motion for Partial Summary Judgment on False Imprisonment.
Accordingly, the Court finds that no genuine issues of material fact remain and that
summary judgment in favor of Defendants is appropriate for all the allegations asserting
negligence, wrongful death, and false imprisonment.
The Court, thus, GRANTS both of
Defendants’ Motions for Partial Summary Judgment (ECF Nos. 301, 302). As the Court did not
require another hearing on the motions, the Court also DENIES Defendants’ Motion to Set
Hearing (ECF No. 307).
The Court DIRECTS the Clerk to send a copy of this Order to counsel of record and any
July 11, 2017
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