The attorney explained to Ms. P that the next step in the legal process was called “discovery.” During that step, they would have the opportunity to examine all the medical records and to take depositions of the people who might testify at trial. The attorney also hired his own expert to review the evidence. 

During the discovery process, the attorney learned about the letters from the insurance company and that the other clinicians knew that the patient was using duplicate pain medication prescriptions but never conveyed this information to Ms. P. 

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During depositions, the medical experts testified that Ms. P’s actions during the consultation with the patient were within the proper standard of care. The medical examiner and several medical experts testified that the methadone toxicity levels indicated that the patient may have ingested methadone that she obtained from another source. 

After discovery but before the case went to trial, Ms. P’s attorney made a motion for summary judgment, asking the judge to dismiss the case against her. The judge granted the motion, and the case against Ms. P was dismissed.

Legal background

Summary judgment is when a judge makes a decision on a case without a full trial. This is allowed under the following two conditions: 

There are no disputes of “material” fact requiring a trial to resolve (that is, the facts are not in dispute, and it is a matter of applying the law to the facts); and 

in applying the law to the undisputed facts, one party is clearly entitled to judgment. 

In this case, the facts were not in dispute. Mrs. L was seeing several clinicians, she had gone to Ms. P for pain management, Ms. P prescribed methadone, and the patient subsequently died of an overdose. However, there was no evidence that showed that Ms. P had, in any way, strayed from the standard of care that she owed her patient. After reviewing the evidence, the judge recognized that, based on the information and at the time she saw the patient, 
Ms. P had acted appropriately. Therefore, the judge granted the summary judgment motion and dismissed the case against her. 

Protecting yourself

During the depositions, several of the experts mentioned Ms. P’s careful and very detailed notes and that she had both given a written copy of the agreement to the patient and discussed it verbally. The experts noted this was evidence that Ms. P was complying with the standard of care owed to the patient. It was clear from the evidence that Ms. P had not been informed about the patient’s drug-seeking behavior or the letters from the insurance company. Had Ms. P been in possession of that information, the outcome for both the patient and the practitioners might have been different. 

Although Ms. P could not protect herself from being sued, she could, and did, protect herself from liability by taking detailed notes, following protocol, documenting lab results, and explaining her conclusions. The referring practitioners were at fault for not sharing vital information that they had which might have altered how Ms. P treated the patient. Their failure to openly communicate and make Ms. P aware of the full facts of the patient’s case ultimately deprived 
Ms. P of making the best choices for the patient and deprived the patient of getting the help she needed.

Ann W. Latner, JD, a former criminal defense attorney, is a freelance medical writer in Port Washington, N.Y.