October 7, 2022 by Tom Ramstack
WASHINGTON — The D.C. Court of Appeals ruled late last month that the District of Columbia cannot be sued for the murder of a man at the hands of a mental patient who was under supervised release.
The man’s wife, Nafisa Hoodbhoy, claimed in her lawsuit that Washington, D.C., authorities were negligent for failing to recognize the assailant’s murderous tendencies and acting to stop him.
The Court of Appeals said the D.C. government has immunity from liability under a 2016 law that created the “public duty doctrine.” The law says the district fulfills its duties by protecting the public at large but has no legal obligation to protect any individual citizen.
Court of Appeals judges agreed the district was negligent in the murder of Pakistani philosopher Jawaid Bhutto but said the local government could not be forced to pay compensation to his widow.
Bhutto was shot to death by a neighbor who lived in his same Southeast D.C. condominium building. The neighbor, Hilman Jordan, was under court-authorized release from the city’s St. Elizabeths Hospital.
Jordan underwent psychiatric treatment at St. Elizabeths for 17 years after being found guilty by reason of insanity for killing his cousin. He was released from the hospital in 2015 under supervision of D.C.’s Department of Behavioral Health.
The court order of supervision required that Jordan be returned to St. Elizabeths if regular blood testing showed he was taking illicit drugs. Psychiatrists determined the drugs triggered Jordan’s paranoid and schizophrenic delusions.
Evidence presented in court showed that months before Bhutto’s killing, Jordan tested positive on four drug tests. Nevertheless, the Department of Behavioral Health did not return him to custody or inform the court.
Bhutto’s widow said the Department of Behavioral Health’s inaction demonstrated negligence. The agency also was negligent for failing to warn neighbors of Jordan’s violent tendencies and preventing his access to drugs, the lawsuit says.
Jordan shot Bhutto for complaining to the condominium’s management that cigarette and marijuana smoke from Jordan’s apartment was wafting upward into Bhutto’s residence.
Associate Judge Catharine Friend Easterly wrote in the court’s ruling that the district’s government failed to fulfill its court-ordered obligations regarding Jordan but the public duty doctrine shielded the city from liability.
She also wrote that the public duty doctrine was “analytically bankrupt.”
Tom can be reached at email@example.com and @TomRamstack