Los Angeles is home to more than its fair share of drug and alcohol rehabilitation facilities. While most of these make good faith efforts at curbing drug and alcohol addicted patients, the Hollywood Reporter recently published a story about a wrongful death civil lawsuit filed by the parents of 22 year old Andrew Witkoff arising from his death while a patient at one such facility. (See story here). The facts allege that the facility represented itself as a “Class A” in house clinic with trained personnel but, in fact, the staff persons assigned to monitor Mr. Witkoff had little or no training in monitoring and supervising drug addicted patients and that lack of proper supervision led to Mr. Witkoff continuing with his oxycontin consumption and his eventual overdose while at the facility. The lawsuit raises three, principal claims as follows: (1) Negligence; (2) Dependent Adult Abuse; and (3) Fraud. I thought it would be interesting to explore what will need to proven by the parents of the deceased patient to prevail on these claims and what potential recovery of money damages may be gained in these various causes of action.
What is “Negligence” As It Applies to The Administration of Drug Counseling and Rehabilitation?
California law defines “negligence” as a breach of a legal duty to provide ordinary and reasonable care which causes damage to another person. If this results in a death, then the survivors or heirs (including parents, siblings, and children) may be entitled to recover damages for both financial support previously provided by the decedent as well as the “economic value” of the loss of “love, companionship, comfort, care, assistance, protection, affection, society, moral support.” (See: Wrongful Death Claims in California). In this case, it appears that the decedent may not have provided financial support to his surviving parents but, they would still be entitled to the “general damages” for the loss of their loved one if they can prove that the care provided was below reasonable standards for a same or similar rehab clinic.
What is the California Dependent Adult Abuse Act and How Is This Applicable to An In-house Drug Rehab Clinic?
California Welfare and Institutions Code §15600, et. seq. is a series of statutes meant to address the “abuse, neglect or abandonment” of “dependent” and “elder” adults. Many people think of this as just applying to elderly persons in nursing homes but, in fact, the statute defines a “dependent adult” in much broader terms. It includes any person over the age of 18 that is admitted to any 24 hour a day inpatient facility. The statute provides for enhanced remedies including punitive damages and the payment of all attorney’s fees and costs to the plaintiff or their family for any successful prosecution showing that the patient was subjected to physical, emotional and/or financial abuse while in the care of any custodian of any such health care clinic. The potential for award of these additional damages provides incentive for attorneys to take on these claims on a contingent (or no recovery no fee basis) and a disincentive for facilities and their staff to mistreat patients. (See Delaney v. Baker (1999) 20 Cal.4th 23)
What Is A Claim for Fraud Under California Law?
Fraud is defined as either an intentional or negligent misrepresentation of facts which causes another person to rely upon those facts to their detriment. In the case at hand, the plaintiff’s are alleging that the drug rehab clinic represented themselves to be a quality rehabilitation facility with trained staff including “sober companions” that would follow and monitor the patients and other individual care and treatment. The plaintiffs allege that these representations made in various promotional materials and in their contract were false in that the staff including the “sober companion” were not adequately trained to conduct monitoring of drug addicted patients. The decedent’s parents allege they relied upon these false representations to their detriment by paying tens of thousands of dollars to the facility. A claim for fraud provides a further basis for potential “punitive” damages (or damages meant to punish the defendant in addition to compensating the victim) under California law.