Patient Held In Alcohol Rehab Against His Will Can Sue for False Imprisonment

Legal Eagle Eye Newsletter for the Nursing Profession

December 1998

  Quick Summary: When a patient voluntarily admits himself for inpatient alcohol rehab and then wants to be released, the patient must be discharged from the facility unless the facility’s chief medical officer determines that the discharge would be unsafe for the patient or others.

   This patient was believed to have a high likelihood of an alcoholic relapse at the moment he wanted to leave.

   That would not be grounds for an involuntary mental-health hold and was not a valid reason to keep the patient against his will.

   The accepted legal standard for involuntary mental-health treatment is immediate grave danger of serious physical harm or death of the person or another.

   The rehab facility has no legal basis to make its own arbitrary decisions "in the best interests of the patient."

   A person wrongfully deprived of liberty by another person acting without valid legal authority can sue for damages in civil court for false imprisonment.  COURT OF APPEALS OF GEORGIA, 1998.

   The patient voluntarily consented to enter the facility for alcohol detoxification. He completed detox and then moved on into the facility’s inpatient rehabilitation program. Two weeks into the program, however, he decided he would prefer an outpatient program at a different facility, and sought to leave.

   His treating physician decided not to release him, so the facility staff held him against his will. The physician wrote a note that the patient, "... is again determined to leave the hospital to find his own treatment program. He is angry, depressed and at high risk of relapse."

   Two days later another physician decided that an outpatient evening program would meet the patient’s needs and authorized his release.

   The patient refused to pay for the two days he was held involuntarily. When the facility sued him, he counter-sued for false imprisonment. The Court of Appeals of Georgia ruled he had valid legal grounds for his counter-suit.

   A person can be held involuntarily for alcoholism treatment. However, because it means a citizen is being deprived of the right to liberty, this is true only if the laws for involuntary mental health treatment are followed to the letter. A patient who enters voluntarily, then changes his mind, can be held involuntarily only very briefly while a court hearing is being sought on the issue of involuntary commitment and only if a properly-designated official certifies there is grave danger of immediate serious harm or death to the person or to another.

   Belief that the person is at risk for relapse, or disagreement with the person’s treatment objectives, even a genuine concern for the patient’s best interests, do not meet the legal standard for an involuntary hold, the court ruled. Wingate v. Alcohol Rehab, 504 S.E. 2d 714 (Ga. App., 1998).