updated 4/6/2009 8:53:26 PM ET 2009-04-07T00:53:26

A Michigan hospital can be sued for releasing a man who killed his estranged wife with an ax 10 days later, a federal appeals court ruled Monday.

The decision by a three-judge panel of the 6th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals reinstates a lawsuit filed by the estate of Marie Moses Irons against Providence Hospital.

The panel cited a federal law that requires hospitals to stabilize patients if an emergency condition exists, though it couldn't find any precedent for allowing a non-patient who alleges harm to sue.

"We recognize that our interpretation ... may have consequences for hospitals that Congress may or may not have considered or intended," Judge Eric Clay wrote. "However, our duty is only to read the statute as it is written."

Quoting the law, Clay said it applies to "any individual" who suffers personal harm.

Christopher Howard, now 42, was physically ill, making threats and showing signs of mental illness when Irons took him to Providence's emergency room in Southfield in December 2002.

Four days later, a doctor recommended that Howard be transferred to a unit for the mentally ill. The transfer, however, never occurred. Howard eventually was discharged, with another doctor saying he didn't need to go to the psychiatric unit.

Irons, 41, was killed while she slept at her home in Southfield, 10 days after Howard's release. She had two cuts to her neck. The couple's 2-year-old son was found unhurt just inches away.

Howard is serving a life sentence for first-degree murder.

'Tragic situation'
In fighting the lawsuit, Providence said Irons' estate had no standing to sue. It also claimed that the Emergency Medical Treatment and Active Labor law did not apply because Howard was screened and did not have an emergency condition.

U.S. District Judge Anna Diggs Taylor ruled in favor of the hospital in 2007, a decision the appeals court overturned. Providence could seek a review by the full 6th Circuit court, though reviews are rarely granted.

St. John Health System, which runs the hospital, declined to comment. A lawyer representing the estate called the decision "very good news."

"It's so difficult to get a reversal these days," Joseph Smith said. "It was a very tragic situation. The hospital was very much at fault."

The three-judge panel said some issues in the case should be settled by a jury.

The "evidence still raises a dispute of fact with respect to whether Howard had an emergency condition on the day of his release and what the hospital's doctors believed when they released him," the judges said.

Copyright 2009 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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