Jury decides Columbia doctor and hospital are not liable for patient's suicide in 1988

April 09, 1996|By Caitlin Francke | Caitlin Francke,SUN STAFF

A Circuit Court jury has cleared a Columbia doctor and Howard County General Hospital of any blame for the suicide of a patient who walked out of the hospital's psychiatric ward in 1988 and jumped off an 11-story building near The Mall in Columbia.

Dr. Jerome Cripe's victory Friday reversed a state arbitration panel's 1993 decision that Dr. Cripe had been negligent in David Leibowitz's death.

That panel -- made up of a health care official, an attorney and a layperson -- cleared the hospital of liability but found fault with Dr. Cripe and awarded Mr. Leibowitz's parents $100,000 for pain and suffering.

The arbitration panel, a mandatory first step in malpractice cases, is designed to screen out frivolous lawsuits. State law allows appeals to the panel's decisions, but only a third of its cases go to court. Of those, the panel's decisions have been upheld in more than 70 percent of cases, according to statistics from the state Health Claims Arbitration Office.

Dr. Cripe appealed the judgment against him. Mr. and Mrs. Stephen Leibowitz opposed the dismissal of the hospital's liability. For five days last week, all three parties went to Circuit Court for the jury's decision.

"I was stunned," said attorney William Rowan, who represented the Leibowitzes. "Obviously, this jury never thought [David Leibowitz] was in imminent danger of harming himself."

Dr. Cripe's attorney, Phillip Franke, did not return a phone call.

Michael Baxter, a Baltimore attorney who represented the hospital, said, "We never felt the hospital had done anything wrong."

The hospital, he said, "had their T's crossed and I's dotted. Unfortunately, it didn't stop this boy from committing suicide."

The Leibowitzes, who lived in Columbia from 1968 until shortly after the suicide and now reside in Jacksonville, Fla., declined to comment. Their son was 22 in September 1988 when he leaped off the top of the former Equitable Bank Building in downtown Columbia.

The plaintiffs had alleged that Dr. Cripe and the hospital did not adequately diagnose the Wilde Lake High School graduate as a suicide risk and did not protect him.

They sought damages of about $700,000, Mr. Baxter said.

Defense attorneys maintained that Dr. Cripe did a sufficient analysis with the information he had. In an open-door psychiatric ward, people are allowed to leave, Mr. Baxter said.

He said he did not think the lawsuit prompted changes in the psychiatric ward's administration, because hospital officials believed their actions were correct.

Hospital officials could not be reached for comment.

Pub Date: 4/09/96

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