Medical Malpractice Alleged Against Harvard University Following Student’s Suicide – Part 2 of 3

In my previous post, I reported on a wrongful death and medical malpractice lawsuit filed by the family of a Harvard University student who committed suicide while under the care of the school’s Health Services Department. Now I’ll explain the legal basis for why this suit is being filed, and why the family is accusing the defendants here with negligence.

The fact that patients taking Accutane, Prozac or Wellbutrin should be monitored for development of any suicidal thoughts is not news to anyone – certainly not to anyone in the medical community. Furthermore, according to the suit, young Edwards told the nurse who prescribed these drugs that he had taken Prozac when he was younger, but that it made him experience feelings of being “out of control.” Despite this, the nurse prescribed allegedly him the combination of Adderall, Wellbutrin and Prozac – knowing that he was also taking Accutane, known to create a higher risk of suicide in many patients. What this family (the plaintiffs) must legally prove here (as must all plaintiffs in medical malpractice suits or medically-related wrongful deaths suits,) is that the actions of both this nurse practitioner and her supervising doctor fell below the “standard of care” required of medical professionals of the same qualifications, intelligence, and experience, operating under similar circumstances.

The term “standard of care” refers to professionally-recognized, widely-accepted routine custom and practice in any given profession. There is no one standard of care applicable to all professions, but different ones that apply to and are particular to, different professions. For example, in this case, professional organizations such as the American Medical Association and the American Psychiatric Association will have published certain minimum steps and “best practices” that should be followed when evaluating and treating a young adult presenting with certain mental health complaints. Expert witnesses and academic authorities can also tesify to certain minimum standards of care that these defendants were required to adhere to in caring for a patient such as young Mr. Edwards. Whether or not their care deviated from or fell below these standards, has yet to be determined.

Specifically, the plaintiffs here must show that the defendants knew or should have known that prescribing the combination of these medications, without rigorous and frequent medical evaluation follow-up as well as psychotherapeutic counseling, posed an unreasonable risk of harm to the victim.

As to the supervising physician, negligence may well be found here regardless of whether or not she knew that Edwards was being prescribed these specific drugs, because according to the suit, she failed to supervise the nurse practitioner, as the professional standard of care under these circumstances very likely required her to do. The nurse involved here did not have the medical training that a physician has; the plaintiffs will argue that this nurse should not have been left to make these decisions and prescribe these drugs on her own. The plaintiffs will argue that the nurse was writing prescriptions for powerful drugs that were known among the medical community to be inappropriate in this combination and that are widely associated with an increase of suicide.

In my next and last post on this case, I’ll talk about what kind of legal exposure these defendants have, and – not that any amount of money can ever “compensate” for the death of a loved one – what the damages in a case like this might be valued at.