Judge allows punitive damages in lawsuit against Brainerd methadone clinic
A judge has ruled that the families of two Carlton County workers killed in an October 2012 vehicle collision can seek punitive damages against a Brainerd clinic that provided methadone to the woman who caused the crash.
Sixth Judicial District Judge Sally Tarnowski also granted a motion by the families of Zachary Gamache and Mitchell Lingren to amend the lawsuit to include the clinic's medical director at the time of the crash, Dr. John Stroemer, as a defendant.
The plaintiffs allege that Stroemer never conducted a physical examination of Vanessa Brigan or even looked at the medical records of the Cloquet woman before providing her with a take-home dose of methadone, which she injected into her bloodstream shortly before causing the fatal crash on state Highway 210.
"In this case, plaintiffs have presented prima facie evidence that (Pinnacle Recovery Services) and Dr. Stroemer exhibited a deliberate disregard for the rights and safety of others throughout Brigan's entire period of treatment prior to this accident in the form of frequent violations of federal regulations and failure to comply with applicable standards of care in (methadone maintenance treatment)," Tarnowski wrote in an order filed Tuesday.
"While punitive damages claims should only be allowed in the most narrow and egregious circumstances, the actions of Pinnacle and Dr. Stroemer in this case are sufficient to establish a prima facie case," Tarnowski wrote.
Punitive damages are fines meant to punish the defendant and deter similar future behavior. The case is scheduled to go to trial on Nov. 2.
Attorney Phil Sieff, representing the plaintiffs, said after the ruling that his clients "are very much looking forward to trial and are naturally pleased with the court's order."
Attorney Gregory Bulinski, representing Pinnacle Recovery Services, issued the following statement on the ruling: "While Pinnacle and its medical staff have the utmost respect for Judge Tarnowski and sympathy for the families of the young men who were killed in the tragic accident, we disagree with the decision to permit the complaint to be amended to seek punitive damages and look forward to demonstrating to the jury that Pinnacle's staff were committed to the proper treatment of their patients in a very challenging area of health care and did not know, or have reason to know, that this particular patient would violate the law after leaving the clinic."
The lawsuit stems from the Oct. 1, 2012 crash that claimed the lives of Gamache and Lingren. Brigan, who was 26 at the time of the crash, pleaded guilty to criminal vehicular homicide charges and is serving a six-year prison sentence. She admitted that she stopped at a gas station after leaving the Brainerd clinic and injected her take-home methadone dose intravenously, before beginning a 100-mile drive back to her home in Cloquet. Methadone is an opiate used to treat addiction to heroin and other opiates.
Brigan crossed into the approaching lane of traffic on Minnesota Highway 210 near Wright, striking Gamache and Lingren's truck, which then careened across the two-lane highway and was struck by a large truck hauling construction equipment.
This week's ruling came after a hearing in June at which attorneys for both sides presented their cases.
Sieff had argued that the clinic's and Stroemer's conduct was "beyond negligent. It is reckless."
He said medical records showed that Brigan had a history of lying to clinic staff and using illegal drugs. She admitted to using synthetic drugs, THC and methadone purchased off the street, he said.
Sieff also alleged that Brigan did not meet the federal criteria for take-home methadone use. He said the clinic was driven by profits and said there was no evidence that Stroemer "did anything other than to make sure Vanessa Brigan got more and more methadone."
Bulinski had argued in June that Stroemer had relied on the opinions of an experienced team of professionals before prescribing Brigan the take-home dose. Bulinski also argued that the clinic could not be expected to know that Brigan was going to get behind the wheel after receiving treatment.
Bulinski said Brigan did have some relapses on her record, but staff was working with her and she had never driven home from the clinic before.
In allowing Stroemer to be added as a defendant, Tarnowski noted that the court initially had set a deadline of Sept. 2, 2014 to name additional parties in the lawsuit.
However, she ruled that the plaintiffs had a "reasonable excuse" for not meeting the time limits given the complexity of the case, and the lengthy discovery process.
The judge also noted that Stroemer is "an owner of Pinnacle ... as well as being Pinnacle's president, registered agent, CEO and former medical director. ... As a result, Dr. Stroemer has had notice of this suit and has been actively involved in this case through Pinnacle since its inception."