In a landmark legal decision earlier this month, the doctor convicted by a jury for second-degree murder of patients was sentenced to 30 years to life in prison.[i] The doctor allegedly overprescribed drugs to patients. In response to the landmark decision and murder conviction, the medical community may change the rules and protocols for managing patient prescriptions for narcotics. When administered properly, drugs are safe, but when mixed in the wrong combinations or taken in excessive doses, drugs are lethal. Like other licensed professionals, doctors are uniquely trusted by most people as lifesavers, often expected to perform miracles. It is contrary to the general standards of decency to which many of us are accustomed, to question whether a doctor would overprescribe drugs to a patient to the point of death.
The jury answered the question whether Los Angeles Dr. Hsiu-Ying (Lisa) killed her patients.
During the trial, jurors heard testimonial evidence from some family members of Lisa’s patients who called the doctor a “drug pusher” and asked her to stop prescribing medication.[ii] The prosecutor told jurors that Lisa’s routine of prescribing drugs was full of “red flags,” and despite receiving more than 12 reports from law enforcement or coroners saying, “Your patient has died,” Lisa did not change her prescription habits.[iii]
If Lisa knew that her patients were dying and the cause was connected with the drugs she was prescribing, the inference is that she did not care whether the patients were at risk of death. Why would a physician overprescribe drugs? In many cases where doctors are prescribing pain medications, those drugs find their way into the wrong hands when patients misrepresent their health history for the purpose of obtaining a prescription with the intent to sell the drugs. Was Lisa a “drug pusher?”
The prosecutor told the jury that Lisa, “agreed to give patients powerful narcotics without asking follow-up questions even after some – including an undercover agent posing as a patient – told her about their drug addictions. “She wrote them a prescription for the very thing they’re addicted to.[iv]”” Lisa’s attorney defended her client and argued that Lisa was not motivated by money. The countless reports of warning signs and questionable prescription practices are troublesome in the medical community where the good and ethical physicians get nervous about prescribing certain narcotics.
If doctors fear criminal liability for patient death connected with narcotics, fewer people with legitimate needs might find a path to recovery.
Medical malpractice insurance may pay the loss of life claim if a doctor is found liable for negligence, but the malpractice policy does not apply to criminal liability and it will not keep a doctor out of prison. Imagine a patient is manipulative and deceitful, and an unknowing doctor prescribes painkillers that the patient sells to others and someone dies. Is the doctor going to be criminally liable? Could there be an imposition of strict liability for deaths related to painkiller prescriptions? If physicians are to be held to a super hero standard where mistakes are not allowed, we might see lower enrollments in medical schools because the risks of the practice of medicine would dissuade our brightest scholars from becoming doctors.
The conviction and sentencing of a physician, in connection with prescribing drugs, is compelling, especially where very few doctors nationwide have faced similar charges, and the ones who do are often acquitted. It is likely that the medical community may respond with new advice and protocols to prevent future cases of abuse and death.
Michael V. Favia & Associates represent and defend doctors and their medical practice.
Chicago health law and litigation attorney Michael V. Favia and his associates in several locations and disciplines, advise and represent licensed physicians in all types of litigation and administrative matters involving licensing and regulatory agencies. When a physician is accused, no matter in what form, of wrongdoing or negligence, it is imperative to manage the situation appropriately. In some instances, there is a duty to report, and when done correctly, the results are greatly improved.
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[i] Los Angeles Times, Doctor convicted of murder for patients’ drug overdose gets 30 years to life in prison, by Marisa Gerber, Feb. 5, 2016.
[ii] Los Angeles Times, California doctor convicted of murder in overdose deaths of patients, by Marisa Gerber, Lisa Girion and James Queally, Oct. 30, 2015.
[iii] See HNi above.
[iv] See HNii above.