A tragic, horrible new case out of Los Angeles County this week raises important issues about DUI in the era of prescription drug addiction. A 56 year old woman is in due in court on charges of vehicular manslaughter for running down a group of people who’d just left church services in Redondo Beach. So far, four crash victims, including a 6 year old boy, have died. The driver is suspected of having prescription drugs in her bloodstream at the time of the crash. The questions for her lawyer will be: What was in her system, how much was present, is that enough to “impair” her driving, and based on what scientific studies and standards, and how did she come to have the drug(s) in her system that day?
The other question for her lawyer will be, “Who else can I blame this on?” And that is where the doctor who prescribed the drugs, if the driver was taking a legally dispensed prescription, will with good reason start to worry. A doctor who prescribes narcotics to a patient could face a lawsuit, and a malpractice claim, and a Medical Board inquiry, AND, today, criminal investigation, if the patient taking the prescribed substance commits a crime or ends up killing someone in a circumstance that could in any way be traceable to the drug’s presence in the patient’s body. DUI/manslaughter is just such a situation.
In California, there is no “saloonkeeper liability,” that is, if you get drunk at a bar, no one can later sue the bartender or business owner for giving one too many drinks to a drunk patron who gets in a car wreck after leaving the bar. The bartender or saloon owner couldn’t be criminally prosecuted, either. The same principle should protect physicians and other medical providers from liability for their patients’ driving under the influence of prescription drugs, even if the patient horrifically mows down a crowd of innocent people. But expect California authorities – and here, the defense lawyer – to take a good look at whether blame for the Redondo Beach accident can be shared/split b/w the driver, and the prescriber. Expect authorities to see whether the doctor independently of the crime/accident was overprescribing anyway, to this patient or others. Expect the driver’s defense lawyer to try and outright investigate the doctor and try and deflect attention from his or her client, onto the prescriber for irresponsible prescribing. It probably won’t work as a defense strategy, and it shouldn’t. But no doctor wants to be on the receiving end of the call from the Medical Board or a defense attorney’s investigator.
Doctors prescribing controlled substances for chronic pain and other conditions must thoroughly document advice they give to their patients about taking the prescription, potential side effects, and warnings to patients about possible impairment. If a doctor gets investigated in a case like this, and the patient file contains shoddy or inadequate notes and admonitions, the doctor will have invited unnecessary and highly worrisome official scrutiny to her or his practice.
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