It is not often that a doctor is found liable for the suicide of a patient, but that is exactly what happened in a recent New York case. A jury found that the negligent treatment by Dr. William Beals caused his patient, 51-year-old Joe Mazella, to commit suicide in 2009.
Mazella’s family was awarded over $1.5 million after a jury deliberated for two days following a two-week trial. Beals had been prescribing Mazella the antidepressant Paxil for depression, but had not actually seen his patient in more than 10 years. The physician had been filling prescriptions over the phone without seeing Mazella in the office visits or conducting regular examinations.
Shortly before his death, the Mazella began having anxiety attacks. Beals prescribed an additional antidepressant and doubled his dose of Paxil, after which Mazella became ill and visited the hospital for a suspected heart attack. The hospital staff ruled out a heart attack and lowered his Paxil dosage.
Soon afterwards, Mazella had his first office visit with Beals in a decade and told the physician about his hospital visit. Beals allegedly became furious that his patient had gone to the hospital and revealed his treatment, and he refused to treat Mazella anymore. The patient committed suicide within a few weeks.
The New York State Health Department has charged Beals with negligence and placed him probation for three years. A few months after the decision, Beals was disciplined for abusing drugs and alcohol, and his probation was extended to five years. Mazella’s widow said she hopes the verdict sends a message to be careful about overmedicating patients.
Ann W. Latner, JD, a former criminal defense attorney, is a freelance medical writer in Port Washington, N.Y.