Who's Legally Responsible? Lawsuits Are Certain but Liability Unclear

As a result, a court magistrate released Cho, ordering outpatient treatment and follow-up. It is not clear whether Cho was ever contacted or participated in such treatment.

"That procedure that took place 16 months ago was handled appropriately by our chief of police, by all of the agencies involved and by the treatment facility," said Chris Flynn, director of the Cook Counseling Center on the Virginia Tech campus. "The judgments that were made at the facility are not our judgments. When they are released back into the community and we are told that they are no longer a danger to themselves or others, we work under discrimination acts -- we cannot discriminate against the mentally ill, nor do we want to."

But some mental health experts argue that liability is always an issue in such cases. "There is always liability when you release someone who goes out and does something bad," says Robert W. Kiesling, the former head of psychiatric services in Fairfax County, Va. "There have been negligent release cases where people go to the ER, get released and commit suicide, and acts of violence. Individual health care practitioners have been sued because they decided not to have someone referred for hospitalization and they go out and do something terrible, because it is ruled that the practitioner did not adhere to community standards."

In that case, Peter Odighizumwa, the Appalachian Law School student who had threatened female students and staff, went on a rampage, roaming the campus with a gun and killing three people, the school's dean, a professor and a student. The family of the student, Angela Dales, and three survivors sued the school, seeking close to $23 million, claiming that the school ignored several warnings about Odighizuwa's propensity for violence. Eventually, the case was settled for $1 million.

But Rodney Leffler, a Virginia lawyer, argues that Virginia Tech's reaction was much more responsible and proactive than Appalachian Law School's. "I'm kind of impressed the school [Virginia Tech] went to the lengths to get him involuntarily committed," says Leffler, who adds that he's defended several health care practitioners whose former patients commit violent acts.

Alfred L. Head was one of those cases. Head was treated at Inova Fairfax Hospital several times and released several days before driving his car through the wall of his family's Reston home, and beating his mother to death with a baseball bat. Head and his father sued the hospital and three psychiatrists who treated him, claiming that his violent act was due to their negligence. Head's doctors and nurses were eventually acquitted of responsibility in the death.

"If you read that case, this [Cho] is right on the money, just that fewer people were killed," says Leffler, who defended Inova Fairfax Hospital in that case. "Everything else was the same, they had him held and he answered the questions right and they had to let him go. … They had the duty under the law to let him go, they had no power to keep him unless he answered those two questions in the affirmative: 'Yes, I'm going to kill myself' or 'Yes, I'm going to harm others.'"

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