Doctor, hospital cleared in suicide Columbia defendants not liable in death of patient, jury rules

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

The 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 of the panel's decisions, but only a third of its cases go to court. Of those, the panel's decision has 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.

"The jury just chose not to agree with us," he said. "Why? I don't know."

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 Dr. Cripe and the hospital did not adequately diagnose the Wilde Lake High School graduate as a suicide risk and did not protect him from killing himself.

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.

Stephen Leibowitz testified that his son had a history of psychiatric treatment and was struggling against bouts of depression. He was admitted into the hospital on Sept. 16, 1988, after he burst into his parents' bedroom the night before threatening to commit suicide, the father said.

Early the next day, David Leibowitz's condition worsened, according to court records.

At 6 a.m. and 7: 30 a.m, the attending nurse called Dr. Cripe and told him that the patient was demanding medication and threatening to leave the building, court records say.

"It was more of 'I'll do this if you don't give me what I want,' " Mr. Baxter said.

Security officers were called but later dismissed.

After the threats, David Leibowitz calmed down, returned to his room and rested on the bed, Mr. Baxter said.

Within the next half-hour, when the nurses changed shifts, he left the unlocked psychiatric ward and jumped to his death.

Mr. Baxter said he did not think the lawsuit prompted any changes in administration of the psychiatric ward 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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