A Cup of Joe | Patient Commits Suicide, Patient’s Wife Sues Doctor

Staten Island!! Richmond County: It contains the southern-most point in the state, South Point, and it is the only borough in New York City that does not share a land border with another borough.  Staten Island was called the Borough of Richmond until 1975.  We are talking about a 45-minute drive from the Manhattan office (give or take another hour depending on traffic); and, about 4 ½ hours to Fagen’s Pub in Syracuse.

Throughout the 1980s, a movement to secede from the city steadily grew until 1993 when 65% of Staten Island residents voted to secede and making Staten Island an independent city. But that was scrubbed in the State Assembly.

Ed Menkin, a famous criminal defense lawyer up in Syracuse, says that “only criminal law is important. Everything else is just about other people’s money.”

But this week we are going to get away from murder and mayhem and go over to the civil side of the law – negligence law; specifically, medical malpractice. We hear about those cases where a doctor amputates the wrong limb, leaves a sponge inside a body after surgery, or fails to diagnose cancer. That is treatment. But what about when the doctor doesn’t listen to the patient or their family? Is that malpractice? This week, we talk about a case where a doctor is told that his patient is suicidal. The patient does commit suicide and then his wife sues the doctor. Malpractice? Let’s see.

This is a case about…listening.


ENTER: Richard Shouldis, the patient; Charlene, Richard’s wife; Theodore Strange, Richard’ treating doctor and  professional acquaintance.


BACKGROUND:

Richard and his wife went to see Dr. Strange on June 6. Charlene told the doctor of her fear that Richard would kill himself. Dr. Strange asked Richard if he was going to hurt himself and Richard said, “no.” Dr. Strange recommended Richard see a psychologist, rather than a psychiatrist, because on Staten Island, a psychologist could be scheduled more quickly. Richard called a psychologist but was only able to leave a message.

Later that night, Richard went into the garage, shut the door, turned on his car’s ignition and asphyxiated himself. His wife found him early the next morning. Hours later, the psychologist, for whom Richard had left a message, called back. Richard was 48 years old.

Charlene has brought suit for medical malpractice against Dr. Theodore Strange, arising from the suicide of her husband, Richard. This is the trial of Dr. Strange.


TESTIMONY OF DR. STRANGE:

Q: How did you know Richard?

A: I had been Richard’s primary care physician for many years, and we were also acquainted because Richard was an x-ray technician at Staten Island University Hospital, where I had attending privileges. A month before he committed suicide, he came to see me about lower back pain.

Q: How did treatment go?

A: Over the next five weeks, Richard began to complain of anxiety brought on by a new supervisor at the hospital where he was working.

Q: Is that indicated in your records? Ricahard’s chart?

A: The psychiatric section of the chart records “normal” next to both “Mood and affect” and “Orientation to person, place and time.”

Q: “But on that day you gave him the Xanax for his anxiety, correct?

A: Yes.

Q: So although he was anxious and he needed this medication, you’re saying that his mood and affect is—or his orientation, his psychological status was normal, correct?

A: It may have been normal in the office that day, but he may have said to me, “I’m a little anxious at times.”


TESTIMONY OF DR. SHIELD’S – THE OPPOSING EXPERT WITNESS:

Q: Dr, Shields, should Richard have been sent to an emergency room from the June 6 consult with Dr. Strange?

A: Ultimately, yes.

Q: Well should he have arranged to have the patient sent to an emergency room?

A: Yes.

Q: That day?

A: Or a psychiatrist or any other doctor knowledgeable about suicide patients.


TESTIMONY OF CHARLENE – RICHARD’S WIFE:

Q: How was Richard, from what you saw, five weeks before his death?

A: In May, he was a little anxious, a little worried but nothing he couldn’t handle at that time. By May 30, Richard’s condition was getting a lot worse. He complained about work, and told me it was hard to concentrate there, he was not sleeping well, he stopped riding his motorcycle and the two of us  no longer went on our long walks. He was just withdrawing. He wasn’t the same.

Q: Let me take you to the office visit with Dr. Strange on June 6, okay?

A: Okay. Well, I got up in the morning and I said to Rich, you have to go the doctor today, if not, I’m going to take you to the hospital. So he called Dr. Strange’s office and made the appointment. At Dr. Strange’s office, I told them Rich needed to be admitted, that he was depressed, losing interest in the things that he had enjoyed, was nervous and anxious and it was getting worse and worse, and that. . . I thought he wanted to kill himself after what he was saying in the night –“ I can’t take this, I can’t live like this” – I said he was going to kill himself.

Q: Staten Island University Hospital is a quarter mile from your home, right?

A: Yes. We did not go there because Rich worked thereand . .. he didn’t want everybody to know how he was feeling. He didn’t want that stigma. I said, we’ll start—we’ll go to the doctor’s office first.

Q: What was said next?

A: Dr. Strange then looked at Rick and he said, “everyone goes through this, Rick, you’re not going to hurt yourself, right?”  And my husband then said, “I’ll be okay.”

Q: How was Rich when you left?

A: We were hopeful because the doctor was so calm and . . . kept reassuring us that everything was going to be okay, that this plan was going . . . to work.

Q: What did you do next?

A: We went out to lunch after we left Dr. Strange’s office, had an early dinner, went out shopping, returned home and watched a movie together on TV. As soon as we got home, Richard called the psychologist, got a recording and left a message that he needed to speak with her immediately. I went to bed and fell asleep.

Q: Where was Rich?

A: I woke up at around 5:00 a.m., heard a fan-like noise, went out to the garage and found my husband lying face down next to the car. He was dead.


THE VERDICT:

The jury was asked separately whether  Dr. Strange departed from accepted medical practice in his treatment of Richard by not sending him to a hospital emergency room on June 6.

The jury answered, YES!

The jury found that Dr. Strange had committed malpractice and awarded the following amounts in damages: $10,000,000.00!!!!

But not so fast……To implicate medical malpractice, as a matter of law, there must be a basis for proximate causation.

Dr. Strange asked the Court to set aside the verdict and either direct a verdict in his favor or order a new trial.


RULING OF THE TRIAL JUDGE:

The opinion of plaintiff’s expert, Dr. Shields, as to Dr. Strange being the cause of Richard’s suicide was too conclusory to create an issue of fact for the jury. The wife’s sole medical expert, did not supply such a basis. There was nothing in Dr. Shield’s testimony that properly linked any departure to the suicide when it occurred.

Dr. Strange’s motion to set aside the verdict and direct a verdict in favor of Dr. Theodore Strange is granted.

Case dismissed. No $10 MILLION or anything at all.

Dr. Strange dodged a bullet on this one. But he is probably a better listener now.

Have a peaceful Holiday….


Here is the case: http://www.courts.state.ny.us/reporter/3dseries/2019/2019_51993.htm#5CASE

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