Last June 19, four people died in a brutal massacre in a drugstore on Long Island. After getting a 911 emergency call, Suffolk County homicide detectives found four people shot dead at Haven Drugs in Medford, 60 miles east of New York City. Addiction to prescription painkillers played a key role in this horrible event.
Now the family of one of those killed is calling the doctors who prescribed drugs for the convicted murderer to account. Antonia Mejia, mother of the youngest victim, 17-year-old Jennifer Mejia, has filed a lawsuit alleging negligence on the part of Stan Li, Eric Jacobson and Mark Kaufman, all doctors who allegedly wrote pain med prescriptions for the killer.
She is right to pursue this novel legal strategy.
Jennifer, who worked at the store, pharmacist Raymond Ferguson, 45, and two customers, Jaime Taccetta, 33, and Bryon Sheffield, 71, were shot dead by David Laffer. He walked into the drug store last Father’s Day, minutes after it opened, and rapidly shot the pharmacist, Jennifer and the two customers at close range. He then filled up a backpack with 10,000 prescription painkillers and fled. All of this was caught on the store’s video recorder.
Suffolk County Police Commissioner Richard Dormer said, “In all my law enforcement experience and in the experience of the police that are involved in this investigation, this is one of the most heinous, brutal crimes we have ever encountered.”
Laffer was quickly caught and convicted. It became clear during his trial that he had a long history of addiction to painkillers and an equally long history of doctors prescribing drugs to him.
The abuse of pain medication in the U.S. is out of control. While illegal street drug use has declined, abuse of prescription medications, especially painkillers, has been increasing. Emergency department visits for nonmedical use of opioid analgesics climbed by 111 percent between 2004 and 2008, and jumped nearly 30 percent between 2007 and 2008 alone, according to a 2010 report by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Who is partly to blame for this mess? Certainly some doctors should be. The key source of painkiller abuse is the medical establishment. A few bad apples prescribe painkillers to anyone who comes in the door, often giving them multiple prescriptions.
Jennifer’s mother has no doubt about the role played by doctors in feeding the drug habit of Laffer. She told the Long Island newspaper Newsday, "The main reason we came to this point [filing a lawsuit] is because the doctors fed his [Laffer's] addiction -- they know what they are creating when they write these prescriptions."
There will be an impassioned defense by the doctors named in the lawsuit. It may turn out that they did nothing wrong in prescribing for Laffer. But there are reports of docs who write scripts for cash for pain pill addicts, though those are, admittedly, rare. It may also turn out that Laffer is partly a creation of bad medicine.
Not so long ago, the world focused in on the role played by Michael Jackson’s personal physician, Dr. Conrad Murray, who was found guilty of involuntary manslaughter after giving Jackson the dangerous and powerful anesthetic propofol to help him sleep.
It is long past time to move past the odd celebrity physician case and hold doctors accountable for the damage they do in misprescribing far less exotic drugs than propofol.
If we can all spend so much time and energy worrying about and hoping for justice for the Conrad Murrays of the world, shouldn’t we create a public policy and legal doctrine that hold accountable those doctors who prescribe these potent painkillers indiscriminately?
Arthur Caplan, Ph.D., is director of the Center for Bioethics at the University of Pennsylvania.