The Daily Tar Heel

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Wednesday February 8th

Williamson Decision Pleases Psychiatrists

The unanimous Dec. 19 ruling overturned the 1998 jury decision that found former Student Health Service psychiatrist Myron Liptzin negligent in his treatment of Williamson, who has been diagnosed as a paranoid schizophrenic. Liptzin was ordered to pay Williamson $500,000.

Liptzin said he is glad the case has been resolved because the jury ruling could have made psychiatrists hesitant to treat severely mentally ill patients.

He said Williamson's civil suit never should have made its way to a jury. "When it went to trial, I was astounded."

For a period of three months in 1994, Liptzin treated Williamson while he attended law school at UNC. In January 1995, eight months after their last session, Williamson created seven minutes of terror on Henderson Street when he opened fire on pedestrians and passers-by. He killed a UNC student and a Chapel Hill resident and wounded a police officer.

Williamson is being treated in Dorothea Dix state mental hospital after an Orange County jury found him not guilty by reason of insanity in 1995.

But Liptzin said that it was impossible for him to foresee the near-campus shooting spree and that Williamson had made great improvements during their six sessions. When Williamson came for care, Liptzin said he was on the verge of being kicked out of law school.

"He was a good patient and followed my instructions," he said. "His friends said that while he had been driving them up the wall with his psychotic delusions, he was back to his old self."

Liptzin said the problems started when Williamson went home in May 1994 and did not continue medical attention.

"He was able to finish the semester, and he didn't follow instructions to stay on medication, and he didn't follow up to see anybody," he said. "The event in January was a shock. He was so well, so focused on what he was doing."

Although Liptzin said he is relieved by the case's resolution, he said the ruling has a larger significance for the medical profession. "There was concern on my part that it would have a deleterious effect on care for severe and chronically ill patients," Liptzin said. "People would be hard pressed to care for people if they could be held liable."

Williamson's attorney, Nick Gordon, said he was disappointed by the appellate court's ruling. He said the decision might jeopardize mentally ill patients by not holding psychiatrists responsible for delivering inappropriate care. "We want to spotlight that people with mental illness need special help," he said.

Gordon said he will now ask the state Supreme Court to take the case.

But Anthony Lindsey, associate chairman of the UNC psychiatry department, said physicians across the nation should be relieved by the appellate ruling because of the broad nature of the 1998 jury verdict that it overturned.

"If you read the court's decision (in 1998), it can be applied to more than mental illness," Lindsey said.

"If a physician treats a patient for hypertension, and if they don't assure the patient is taking hypertension medication -- if some injury results, are they liable for that?"

The University Editor can be reached at udesk@unc.edu.

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