This is a fascinating wrongful death legal case arising out of a horrible tragedy.
In June 2011 a pain-pill-addicted patient walked into a Medford pharmacy in Suffolk County, New York for the purposes of stealing thousands of pain pills. During the course of that botched burglary, David Laffer killed four people. He will now be spending the remainder of his life in jail.
One of the people he shot and killed in the pharmacy was Jamie Taccetta. Her family then brought a wrongful death lawsuit against the anesthesiologist, pain doctor Stan Li who continued to prescribe pain pills to Laffer. The family claimed that this doctor was prescribing pain medication to a patient with a known addiction and therefore he should be held responsible for Jamie's death.
The problem with this reasoning is that in order to bring a lawsuit for medical malpractice or wrongful death against a physician, there must always be a doctor-patient relationship. This is a basic concept of medical malpractice law here in New York. If the doctor did not undertake to treat a particular patient, how then can the injured victim claim that the doctor was responsible for the injury and harm that she suffered?
The decision on this case essentially turns these basic concepts of medical malpractice law upside down.
As someone who represents injured victims against doctors and hospitals, this decision is somewhat troubling.
It's troubling from the standpoint that the court has somehow eliminated the need to show a direct relationship between a patient and physician.
According to a recent article in Newsday, the judge determined that the anesthesiologist could be held liable for the death of Jamie test data even though she wasn't a doctor's patient. Part of the judge's decision is quoted here:
“Under certain circumstances a doctor could be held liable if he does not stop supplying controlled substances to addicted patients who cause harm to others. A medical provider may have a duty to protect the public from the actions of a drug addict, and he may be found to have breached that duty if he creates or maintains the addiction through his own egregious conduct.”
So here's what happened.
Jamie Taccetta's family brought a lawsuit seeking compensation for wrongful death against the anesthesiologist, a pain-medicine doctor. The anesthesiologist was giving David Laffer pain medication that he became addicted to. The patient kept returning to the doctor for more prescription medication and the doctor continued to prescribe the medication. Then we see a vicious cycle repeated over and over again.
This addicted patient, Laffer, then goes to the pharmacy to steal more of these pills, and in the course of stealing these pills commits a horrendous crime and kills four people.
The doctor's lawyer asked the court to dismiss the wrongful death lawsuit claiming, among other things, that there is no doctor-patient relationship.
The court decided that the doctor may have an obligation to know that by continuing to give this addicted patient ongoing pain-pill medications, that it's foreseeable he will cause harm to others.
I HAVEN'T SEEN THE COURT'S DECISION
Although I have not had the benefit of reviewing the actual decision, I suspect that if this decision goes up on appeal, it will likely be reversed. Why? Because of a lack of physician-patient relationship.
BUT WAIT...THERE IS PRECEDENT
However, there is one case in New York that has precedent where person who did not have a doctor-patient relationship was still allowed to proceed with a lawsuit against a physician.
Here's what happened.
DAD BRINGS SON TO PEDIATRICIAN FOR A VACCINE. DAD GETS DISEASE. DAD SUES PEDIATRICIAN.
Dad brought his son to the pediatrician to get a vaccine.
Pediatrician give son the vaccine. A short while later dad contracted the disease from the son's vaccine. Dad then sues the pediatrician claiming that the doctor failed to advise dad about the risks and benefits of giving the child the vaccine and the likelihood that dad could get sick because the child had received the vaccine.
THE COURT DECIDES...
In that limited case, the New York courts held that even though there was no direct doctor-patient relationship between dad and the pediatrician, since the child was the actual patient, they still held that the pediatrician had an obligation to disclose all the risks and benefits to the parent so that the parent could make an educated decision about whether the child should receive the vaccine. One of those important risks included the possibility that the dad could suffer the disease for which the vaccine was destined to prevent.
WHAT'S THE BOTTOM LINE?
This is a fascinating decision that could have significant legal implications for the future on all areas of medical malpractice and wrongful death law in New York. At this point, there's only a decision by the trial judge. I look forward to learning whether the defense appeals this as well as reading the decision arising out of the appeal. If that happens, I will report back on this significant finding.