Ruling against the parents of a student killed in the February 2018 massacre at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School, a state appeals court Wednesday said a mental-health facility that provided services to accused shooter Nikolas Cruz cannot be held liable.
A three-judge panel of the 4th District Court of Appeal upheld a lower-court decision to dismiss allegations against Henderson Behavioral Health, Inc., which periodically provided mental-health services to Cruz from 2009 to 2016.
Andrew Pollack and Shara Kaplan, the parents of slain student Meadow Pollack, alleged that the mental-health facility was negligent for failing to prevent Cruz from being mainstreamed into the public-school system and for failing to warn about dangers posed by Cruz, a former Marjory Stoneman Douglas student.
But the appeals court said the “theories of liability are undermined by Florida law establishing that a criminal attack on third parties by an outpatient mental health patient is not within the foreseeable zone of risk created by the mental health provider. Florida law does not recognize a duty of mental health providers to warn third parties that a patient may be dangerous.”
Also, in a nine-page main opinion, the court pointed to the relationships between patients and mental-health providers.
“In this case, a holding that Henderson owed a legal duty to protect or warn students that attended the same school as one of its patients would not only undermine effective patient-therapist relationships, but it also would discourage mental health professionals from providing mental health services to students,” said the ruling, written by Judge Robert Gross and joined by judges Alan Forst and Jonathan Gerber. “It is difficult to predict any human being’s future conduct. Unlike scientific disciplines firmly grounded in mathematics, psychology is not a precise science, so courts should be cautious about expanding liability beyond the therapist-patient relationship.”
The appeals court also upheld the dismissal of a complaint filed against Henderson Behavioral Health by Royer Borges and Emely Delfin, parents of Anthony Borges, a student who survived the 2018 shooting but was seriously injured. The court did not issue a detailed ruling in the Borges case, only citing the Pollack decision.
Henderson Behavioral Health, which was one of several defendants in both lawsuits, provided therapy sessions to Cruz in 2009 and periodically was involved with him for several years, according to the ruling in the Pollack case. For example, after Cruz had enrolled in 2014 in a school for students with emotional and behavioral disorders, Henderson Behavioral Health participated in meetings about mainstreaming him into a regular public school — a process that led to him enrolling in 2016 at Marjory Stoneman Douglas.
The mental-health facility also provided services in 2016, including after receiving a call from Cruz’s mother that he was verbally aggressive and punching holes in his home and after receiving calls from school guidance counselors who expressed concerns that he was going to hurt himself or other people, the ruling said. At one point, counselors from Henderson Behavioral Health advised police “that Cruz ‘was not a risk to harm himself or anyone else’ because he was on a treatment plan for ADHD, depression, and autism,” according to the ruling.
Cruz ended therapy sessions in December 2016 when he was 18. More than a year later, he was arrested on charges of using a semi-automatic weapon to kill 17 people and wound 17 others at the Parkland school. He awaits trial.
In a concurring opinion Wednesday, Gerber wrote that it would “be improper for this court to issue an after-the-fact decision imposing a legal duty and potential liability upon Henderson’s inactions in this case.”
“While this explanation provides no solace to this tragedy’s many surviving victims, or the 17 families who continue to endure indescribable grief, this is the decision which we must render in this case,” Gerber wrote.
Republished with permission from the News Service of Florida.