After Whitney Houston’s tragic death last week, questions about the circumstances and cause of her death began to swirl almost immediately. For years, Ms. Houston had fought a very public battle with alcoholism and drug addiction, including addiction to drugs that were legally prescribed to her. And now, the doctors who prescribed these medications are beginning to face scrutiny.
And it’s pretty much impossible to escape the superficial parallels between the death of Michael Jackson and Houston’s case.
And as you probably remember, Michael Jackson’s personal doctor, Conrad Murray, was convicted of manslaughter charges, on the theory that he prescribed and administered sedatives to Jackson, on which he overdosed, which caused his death.
So, with Houston’s very public struggles with drug addiction being public knowledge, do the doctors who prescribed her the drugs to which she was addicted bear any moral or legal responsibility for her death?
That’s a tricky question, and as her death is investigated, and more details emerge, the answer may become clearer. However, if any of her doctors face criminal charges or civil lawsuits in connection with her death, it’s likely that the issues will remain far from perfectly clear, either from a moral or legal standpoint.
However, there are a few starting points to look at while speculating on this subject, which might provide some guidance about what’s likely to happen. First of all, we’ll have to await toxicology reports from Houston’s autopsy, which will show what type of drugs she was taking when she died, and the quantities in which she took them.
If it is shown that she overdosed on legal pain medications, combined with alcohol, there will be some serious questions that her doctors will have to answer. This doesn’t mean that any of them are guilty of a crime in connection with Houston’s death, but any thorough investigation will have to look at them.
Because it takes a huge amount of education and training to become a doctor, and because doctors are responsible for the lives of their patients, the medical profession is subject to very tight scrutiny. Doctors owe what is known as a “fiduciary duty” to their patients, which is one of the highest legal duties that one person can have to another. So, if a doctor makes a serious error (and should have known better) in treating a patient, they may be subject to civil liability in the form of a medical malpractice lawsuit, and in the most egregious cases, criminal charges for manslaughter.
This is what happened with Conrad Murray, who is now serving a 4-year sentence in a California prison for manslaughter in connection with the death of Michael Jackson.
So, if it’s shown that Whitney Houston overdosed on medication that her doctors had prescribed to her, should they face criminal charges? Maybe, but definitely not necessarily. After all, it may be shown that Ms. Houston took far more than the prescribed dose, or that she got medication from multiple doctors, each of whom did not know that the others were also prescribing drugs to her. Either of these findings would definitely militate against a finding of criminal liability for either of the doctors – in our criminal justice system, conduct typically has to be very egregious to result in a criminal conviction.
However, her family may still be able to sue the doctors for medical malpractice in a civil claim for medical malpractice. In order to succeed in a medical malpractice claim, they will have to show that her doctor(s) fell below the relevant “standard of care” governing the medical profession. Basically, if it can be shown that one or more of her doctors engaged in conduct that no reasonable doctor with a similar level of education, skill, and experience would have engaged in, under similar circumstances, the doctor would be liable to Ms. Houston’s family for wrongful death and medical malpractice.
I would guess that if she overdosed on drugs the doctors prescribed to her, and they knew that she was abusing these drugs, a judge or jury wouldn’t have much trouble finding liability for medical malpractice.
Obviously, I don’t want to give the impression that I’m trivializing Ms. Houston’s death by speculating about the potential legal issues that surround it. However, the law is involved in nearly every aspect of society – almost every event has some legal consequences. Generally, in order to discuss any event fully, you have to consider the legal angles.