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Jury faults psychiatrist for woman’s suicide attempt

A Clay County jury awarded more than $806,000 to a young woman who severely burned herself in an attempted suicide after she was discharged from a local hospital.

The jury found Dr. Daniel V. Spurlock and his employer, Meritas Health, at fault for sending Katherine Harned home without a proper plan to keep her safe. 

Johnny M. Simon and Tim Cronin of The Simon Law Firm, who tried the case together, said it was a difficult case, particularly given that their client incurred her self-inflicted injuries two weeks after her discharge.

“What makes it a tough case is the prejudice surrounding suicide and mental illness,” Simon said. 

“We obviously believed in the merit of our client’s case, but we recognized it was a case with a lot of challenges,” Cronin said. “So we and our client are really happy with the jury’s decision and that they took the time to consider it. I really think they reached the right result.”

According to the plaintiff’s attorneys, Harned had a long history of psychiatric care that included previous suicide attempts. In 2016, her condition worsened. After she attempted to overdose on her prescription medication, she was taken to Liberty Hospital.

During her hospital stay, she voiced suicidal thoughts and ideations. But when she saw a psychiatrist on July 25, she denied being suicidal. The psychiatrist did not admit her inpatient but sent her home with instructions to visit a mental health facility for a follow up eight days later.

She kept that appointment, but six days later — 14 days after she was discharged — she sprayed hairspray all over her body and lit herself on fire. She sustained third degree burns on 42 percent of her body but survived.

Simon and Cronin said they argued that the psychiatrist failed to take the time to treat their client, failed to admit her to the hospital for monitoring and treatment and failed to develop a safety plan. The defense countered that nothing justified admitting Harned on an inpatient basis and that suicide is not predictable.

Bruce Keplinger of Norris Keplinger Hicks & Welder, an attorney for the defendants, said he intends to file post-trial motions, including for application of Missouri’s cap on medical malpractice damages. 

Under current Missouri law, noneconomic damages in such cases are limited to $400,000, but a higher $700,000 cap applies in cases involving catastrophic injuries. The jury’s award included $560,000 in past and future noneconomic damages, which could trigger arguments over whether Harned’s damages qualify as catastrophic.

Keplinger said his case was hampered when a co-defendant, Dr. Elizabeth Gerstner, was dismissed partway through the trial. He said he had planned to rely on live testimony from one of her experts. Simon and Cronin, however, said that expert’s deposition testimony was introduced at trial. 

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$806,288 verdict

Medical Malpractice

Breakdown: $246,288.68 in past medical damages, $260,000 in past noneconomic damages, $300,000 in future noneconomic damages

Venue: Clay County Circuit Court

Case Number/Date: 17CY-CV03228/July 13, 2021

Judge: Alisha O’Hara

Plaintiffs’ Experts: Dr. Geetha Jayaram, Johns Hopkins Baltimore, Maryland (psychiatry); Dr. Jason Persoff, University of Colorado, Boulder, Colorado (internal medicine); Dr. Dhaval Bhavsar, University of Kansas Medical Center, Kansas City, Kansas (surgical specialties)

Defendants’ Experts: Dr. Adam Sky, SSM Health, St. Louis (psychiatry); Dr. Douglas Jacobs, Harvard Medical School, Cambridge, Massachusetts (psychiatry)

Caption: Katherine Harned v. Daniel V. Spurlock and Meritas Health Corporation

Plaintiff’s Attorneys: John M. Simon and Timothy M. Cronin, The Simon Law Firm, St. Louis

Defendants’ Attorneys: Bruce Keplinger and Emily Tung, Norris Keplinger Hicks & Welder, Overland Park, Kansas