Justices agree to end case over escaped patient's death

Man was patient at Alachua County psychiatric hospital

TALLAHASSEE, Fla. – After an unusual series of events, the Florida Supreme Court on Wednesday agreed to dismiss a lawsuit stemming from the death of a patient who was killed on Interstate 75 after escaping from an Alachua County psychiatric hospital.

The decision came after a majority of the court twice refused to dismiss the lawsuit --- even though a settlement had been reached and both parties wanted the case dropped.

As is common, the court did not explain its reasons Wednesday for going ahead with the dismissal. But the move came after the estate of the patient, Ashley Lawson, filed a document last week that said it would not submit an additional brief about the issues in the case and that the parties "are contractually prohibited from further litigation in this matter."

The other party in the case, Shands Teaching Hospital and Clinics, Inc., responded Tuesday by filing a document that sought guidance from the Supreme Court about how to proceed with a brief and arguments. Attorneys for Shands pointed, in part, to a confidentiality clause in the settlement.

"The undersigned attorneys, as officers of the court, understand they have a duty to present this case properly to the (Supreme) Court and believe that the earlier briefs are insufficient for that purpose," Shands attorneys wrote. "Respondent (Shands) wishes to fulfill its obligations to this court, but do not wish their actions to be treated as a breach of their client's settlement agreement."

The lawsuit involved allegations that Lawson escaped from Shands Vista psychiatric hospital --- now known as UF Health Shands Psychiatric Hospital --- after taking an employee's keys and badge. After Lawson was struck and killed by a truck on Interstate 75, her estate filed a negligence suit.

Shands argued that the case should be handled as an allegation of medical malpractice, a move that would effectively lead to dismissal because the estate had not given a pre-suit notice that is required in medical-malpractice cases.

The 1st District Court of Appeal agreed with the hospital's argument, prompting the estate to go to the Supreme Court late last year.

Justices in June agreed to take up the case, but Lawson's estate filed a notice July 28 saying that it was voluntarily dismissing the appeal because of the settlement.

That didn't end the case, however, because the Supreme Court on Sept. 13 refused to dismiss it. The court split 4-3, with Chief Justice Jorge Labarga and justices Barbara Pariente, R. Fred Lewis and James E.C. Perry in the majority and justices Peggy Quince, Charles Canady and Ricky Polston in the minority wanting to go ahead with dismissal.

Shands later asked the court to reconsider that decision, but a majority of justices again refused to dismiss the case Nov. 15. The move Wednesday vacated the Nov. 15 decision.