While in L.A.’s famed Criminal Courts Building handling a client’s case today, I stopped by Department 107, where the triple murder prosecution against Los Angeles-area osteopath Lisa Tseng is moving forward, albeit slowly. Department 107 is the courtroom of Judge Michael Pastor, a very well regarded judge and a favorite of prosecutors and defense attorneys alike throughout Los Angeles County. I have been in 107 before Judge Pastor both as a prosecutor and as a defense lawyer, and earlier this year I did nightly TV news commentary on the Michael Jackson/Dr. Conrad Murray manslaughter trial – another high profile case over which the judge presided.
Dr. Tseng is charged with three counts of second degree murder, stemming from the overdose deaths of opiate-addicted patients for whom she wrote multiple Schedule II through Schedule V painkiller prescriptions. She is also charged with various other related felonies. The theory of homicide is “implied malice” – that she was so reckless and unreasonable in writing for these patients, she so failed to see that they were headed for destruction, that she may as well have wished or intended them dead. To my knowledge, this is the only murder prosecution against a healthcare provider today. If convicted, Tseng faces 15 years to life in prison on each murder count alone. Today in the Tseng case, the defendant was a “miss out” – she was not transported on time to court from the County Jail where she is being held in lieu of $3 million bail. The case is still in the pretrial discovery phase, and will not likely go to trial imminently, though I am sure a trial will occur.
The prosecution has a powerful emotional and storytelling “hook” for a jury: Dr. Feelgood, writing opioid scrips like they were going out of style, getting rich while fecklessly feeding the insatiable addiction of three young, formerly healthy kids who had their whole lives in front of them. But how, and why, charge murder – murder! – against someone who obviously didn’t want her patients to die, and who presumably didn’t tell them to down a whole bottle in one sitting – and who wasn’t present when the overdoses occurred? The charges are either groundbreaking, or crazy, or both.
Healthcare providers, drug manufacturers, patient safety advocates, and law enforcement agencies are keeping a close eye on this case. Providers want reassurance that they’re not going to be targeted as the next Lisa Tseng. Manufacturers fear a corporate criminal indictment down the road on various experimental theories of liability. Patient safety advocates see this as a test case against prescription drug abuse. And of prime concern to Painkiller Law, law enforcement is desperately looking for guidance or a template for going after physicians, osteopaths and physician’s assistants in this latest iteration of the War on Drugs.
As this case goes forward I will write about it frequently on the Painkiller Law Blog. If you’re a healthcare provider writing prescriptions for pain medication, your doing so doesn’t mean you’ll be charged with murder if a patient fatally overdoses. What we are seeing every day, though, is that anyone – even if they’re not Lisa Tseng – can be targeted. Be ready, by being in compliance today. Learn how to fully comply with the criminal law of prescription painkillers, through Painkiller Law.
Painkiller Law: Criminal Law Compliance for Healthcare Providers.
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