Man Says He Was Beaten, Detained at Hospital Just for Trying to Walk Out

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After he allegedly escaped unnecessary chest surgery, a Maryland man says he was detained, beaten, and repeatedly called a "bitch" by security at Prince George's Hospital in Cheverly, Md., as he attempted to seek medical care elsewhere.

Now the patient, Joseph Wheeler, 46, and his wife Felicia Ann, 44, of Inigoes, Md., are suing the hospital, for more than $12 million for, among other charges, false imprisonment.

Though assault and battery and infliction of emotional distress (the other charges filed by Wheeler) are not usually a concern during a hospital stay, Wheeler's allegations raises an important question for patients: when can a hospital detain a patient against his or her will?

Held Captive by a Hospital?

Wheeler was brought to Prince George's Hospital Center via ambulance June 23 following a car accident and treated for blunt torso trauma but no acute injuries, according to the complaint he filed with the Prince George County Court. When he awoke the next morning, he was allegedly informed by a nurse that he would be receiving surgery "to have a potentially cancerous mass removed from his chest."

Wheeler says he soon realized that his identification bracelet provided by the hospital contained a name that was not his and appeared to be that of a woman 13 years younger. Wheeler said he "began to fear for his safety... as he was being prepped for a surgery he knew nothing about," according to court document.

He and his wife gathered his belongings and were attempting to leave the hospital when two security guards allegedly detained Wheeler. Wheeler claims the men shouted profanities at him, put on black padded gloves and proceeded to shove him against the wall, then taking him into an elevator where they beat him while he lay on the floor in a fetal position.

Hospital staff and the security guards allegedly attempt to forcefully take the incorrect ID bracelet from Wheeler several times and he was interrogated by a "lieutenant." After speaking with a hospital administrator and signing a release form acknowledging that he was leaving the hospital against medical advice, Wheeler was able to seek treatment at nearby St. Mary's Hospital.

There he was diagnosed with four broken ribs, a sprained shoulder, a ruptured spleen, and a concussion, according to court documents.

The Wheelers are suing for $3.2 million in compensatory damages and $9.5 million in punitive damages.

Calls requesting comment from hospital staff or from Dimensions Health Corporation, which owns the hospital, were not immediately returned.

Patients Right -- Could This Happen to You?

Whether or not Wheeler was actually falsely imprisoned has yet to be determined by the courts, but Wheeler's account raises the question -- when is a patient allowed to leave?

"A hospital is not a prison, and usually a patient can always leave," says George Annas, chairman of Health Law, Bioethics and Human Rights at Boston University. There are exceptions, however, and these involve a patient who is thought to be unable to make sound decisions (due to delirium or intoxication for instance) or if the patient is thought to be a danger to himself, or others.

If patients falls into one of these categories they can be restrained and even tied to their bed "for their own good" until a physician or psychiatrist can evaluate them, says Dr. Paul Appelbaum, director of the Division of Law, Ethics and Psychiatry at Columbia University. Generally, a psychiatrist would have to certify the patient as mentally ill and dangerous to justify detaining him or her, Annas adds.

The rules about how long a patient can be detained, who must make the evaluation, and what legal recourse a patient has varies from state to state. Generally, a patient has a right to a hearing with a judge within 24 to 72 hours if they feel they are being wrongfully detained, says Annas.

Given this, it is possible that a patient of sound mind could be mistakenly detained for hours while waiting for an available doctor to make an evaluation or days if the patient needs to resort to a hearing to defend his or her mental state, experts note.

With no suspicion of mental illness or otherwise debilitated judgment, hospital staff may recommend that patients not leave and even ask them to sign a release stating they are leaving against medical advice -- as Wheeler did. But even a patient who refuses to sign the release is free to leave, Appelbaum says.

In general, "hospitals have relatively little incentive to hold people against their will," he adds.