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Doctors Conviction for Narcotic Distribution Inadmissible in Wrongful Death Case


A man suffered from chronic back pain and degenerative disc disease. He was treated by a doctor, who prescribed him various pain medications including methadone, Lortab, and Demerol. The man developed a drug tolerance that required successively larger doses of medication to ameliorate his pain.

 

During the man’s last visit to the doctor, the doctor issued a written prescription for a daily dosage of 140 mg of methadone. Two weeks later, the man was found dead at his home. The cause of death was acute methadone toxicity. Evidence suggested that the man had died about a week after his last visit to the doctor.

 

The man’s estate sued the doctor for wrongful death caused by medical malpractice.

 

During his deposition, the doctor testified that he had given the man oral dosing instructions for the methadone that differed from those reflected on the written prescription. The doctor argued that the man was at fault for his own death because he failed to follow the oral instructions.

 

After the man’s death, but prior to trial, the doctor was charged under federal law with two felony drug counts for illegally distributing a controlled substance. The criminal charges were related to an individual with a sport-related injury who gave the doctor cash in exchange for prescriptions. The doctor pled guilty to one felony drug charge and was sentenced to prison. He was unable to attend the wrongful death trial due to his incarceration. In lieu of direct examination, the doctor’s deposition was read to the jury.

 

During trial, the estate sought to introduce evidence of the doctor’s felony conviction in order to impeach his deposition testimony as to his alleged oral dosing instructions. The doctor filed a motion in limine to exclude evidence of the conviction. The Second District Court, Farmington, denied the motion and the doctor’s deposition describing the events surrounding his felony conviction was read into the record. The jury found that the doctor breached the standard of care and that his breach was the proximate cause of the man’s death. The jury awarded the estate over $3 million in general damages and $300,000 in punitive damages.

 

The Supreme Court of Utah reversed. The court held that, as a matter of first impression, the evidentiary rule governing admission into evidence, on cross-examination, of specific instances of conduct to attack a witness’s character for truthfulness governed only admission of evidence for those acts that did not result in a criminal conviction; the doctor’s prior felony conviction for illegally distributing a controlled substance was not subject to automatic admission into evidence under Utah R. Evid. 609(a)(2); the danger of unfair prejudice arising from evidence of the doctor’s prior felony conviction substantially outweighed the probative value of the evidence, such that evidence of the doctor’s conviction was not admissible for impeachment purposes; and the trial court’s error in admitting evidence of the doctor’s prior felony conviction warranted reversal.

 

As a matter of first impression, the evidentiary rule governing admission into evidence, on cross-examination, of specific instances of conduct to attack a witness’s character for truthfulness governed only admission of evidence for those acts that did not result in a criminal conviction. Utah R. Evid. 608 did not apply to evidence of the doctor’s felony conviction for illegally distributing a controlled substance. The evidentiary rule begins with the phrase “except for a criminal conviction,” which is addressed under a different evidentiary rule, Utah R. Evid. 609. Rule 609 applies when “attacking a witness’s character for truthfulness by evidence of a criminal conviction.” The trial court’s admission of the doctor’s conviction under rule 608 was an abuse of discretion.

 

The doctor’s prior felony conviction for illegally distributing a controlled substance was not subject to automatic admission into evidence under Utah R. Evid. 609(a)(2). Under rule 609(a)(2), only those crimes involving a statutory offense that require proving a dishonest act or false statement as an element of the crime are to be automatically admitted into evidence. The elements of the doctor’s prior felony conviction for illegally distributing a controlled substance, premised on his act of giving pain medication prescriptions to another individual in exchange for cash, did not require either proof of a dishonest act or a false statement. Admission of the doctor’s prior conviction for a narcotics violation was improper under rule 609(a)(2).

 

The danger of unfair prejudice arising from evidence of the doctor’s prior felony conviction substantially outweighed the probative value of the evidence, such that evidence of the doctor’s conviction was not admissible for impeachment purposes. Although the estate contended that the doctor put his credibility at issue by claiming to have given the man undocumented oral dosing instructions, that was not a consequential fact because the estate argued that the doctor was negligent regardless of which dosing instructions were given. Details about the doctor’s criminal conviction had the potential to lure the jury into finding fault on a ground different from that alleged by the estate.

 

The trial court’s error in admitting evidence of the doctor’s prior felony conviction warranted reversal. Admission of evidence of the doctor’s conviction unfairly prejudiced the doctor, creating a reasonable likelihood that the jury generalized the doctor’s criminal act, concluding that he was a bad person who needed to be punished. The jury might have concluded that even if the doctor was not at fault in the instant case, the jury could ensure that the doctor never again wrote an illegal prescription, which was the issue underlying his prior conviction.

 

The Supreme Court of Utah reversed the trial court’s admission of evidence of the doctor’s felony conviction for illegally distributing a controlled substance.

 

See: Robinson v. Taylor, 2015 WL 4730874 (Utah, Aug. 11, 2015) (not designated for publication).

 

See also Medical Law Perspectives, October 2014 Report: Backaches and Court Battles: When Chronic Back Pain Leads to Litigation

 

See also Medical Law Perspectives, January 2014 Report: Prescription Painkillers: Risks for Patients, Pharmacists, and Physicians

 

See also Medical Law Perspectives, May 2013 Report: Drugs, Dosage, and Damage: Physician Liability for Prescribing or Administering Medication

 

See the Medical Law Perspectives February 16, 2015, Blog: Pharmacy Owes Duty To Patient Not To Fill Excessive Prescriptions for Opioids 

 

See the Medical Law Perspectives October 8, 2014, Blog: Opioid Pain Pill Abusers Switch to Heroin; Heroin Overdose Deaths Double

 

 

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