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Cowan v. Doering

Decided: January 15, 1987.

MARILYN M. COWAN, FORMERLY KNOWN AS MARILYN M. LOMBARDO, PLAINTIFF-RESPONDENT,
v.
RICHARD DOERING, M.D., ALEXANDRE ACKAD, M.D., KATHLEEN BARLICS, R.N., CAROLE ELTRIDGE, R.N., AND THE VALLEY HOSPITAL, DEFENDANTS-APPELLANTS, AND ALLWYN J. LEVINE, M.D., LOIS PAPP, R.N., CHRIS TAYLOR, R.N., SHARON KROLL, R.N., MARY DOE, JANE DOE, BETTY DOE AND NANCY DOE, DEFENDANTS



On appeal from Superior Court, Law Division, Bergen County.

Pressler, Baime and Ashbey. The opinion of the court was delivered by Baime, J.A.D.

Baime

Following a lengthy jury trial, plaintiff was awarded $600,000 in compensatory damages for injuries sustained when she jumped from a second-story window while being treated at Valley Hospital for an overdose of sleeping pills. Drs. Richard Doering and Alexandre Ackad, nurses Carole Eltridge and Kathleen Barlics and Valley Hospital filed separate appeals from the judgment. Barlics' appeal was subsequently dismissed for procedural reasons which need not be recited. We consolidated the remaining appeals and now affirm.

Plaintiff's action against Dr. Ackad, nurses Eltridge and Barlics and Valley Hospital was premised primarily on their failure to take appropriate precautionary steps to prevent her from attempting to commit suicide. Dr. Ackad was the treating physician and nurses Eltridge and Barlics were assigned to the intensive care unit when plaintiff was admitted. It is undisputed that plaintiff had a history of suicidal acts having overdosed on two prior occasions. Plaintiff contended that Dr. Ackad was negligent in failing to order a "suicide watch"*fn1 and in not taking other measures to safeguard her from self-inflicted injury. Plaintiff's claim against nurses Eltridge and Barlics was predicated on allegations that they failed to properly monitor her condition and prevent her from committing self-destructive acts. The negligence of Dr. Doering was premised

essentially upon his having improperly dispensed sleeping pills to plaintiff knowing that she harbored suicidal propensities.

The essential facts are largely undisputed. Plaintiff first became acquainted with Dr. Doering when she commenced her employment with Valley Hospital. Plaintiff, a registered nurse, was assigned to the intensive care unit. Dr. Doering was a general and vascular surgeon at the hospital. At the time they met, plaintiff and Dr. Doering were both married, but were experiencing severe marital problems. Their relationship rapidly developed into a "romantic attachment," but the couple did not engage in intercourse because of Dr. Doering's impotency. Although they discussed marriage, Dr. Doering never expressly promised that he would leave his wife. Nevertheless, plaintiff testified that Dr. Doering led her to believe that he would eventually marry her.

As their relationship progressed, plaintiff became increasingly anxious and depressed. Pursuant to Dr. Doering's recommendation, plaintiff visited a gynecologist who prescribed nembutal, a strong sedative. On April 10, 1981 plaintiff was extremely depressed and attempted to commit suicide by swallowing a large quantity of the prescribed pills. Plaintiff was immediately transported to Valley Hospital where she was placed under the care of Dr. Ackad. Although plaintiff never became violent during her hospitalization, it is undisputed that she attempted to disconnect the intravenous tubes and remove herself from chest and wrist restraints. Aware of these developments and the reason for plaintiff's admission, Dr. Ackad called for a psychiatric consultation with Dr. Allwyn Levine.

Following her discharge on April 12, 1981, plaintiff continued under the care of Dr. Levine on an out-patient basis. During this period, plaintiff received psychotherapy twice each week. Dr. Levine decided against prescribing anti-depressant drugs because he believed that plaintiff was "unreliable" and harbored a "potential to overdose."

Plaintiff and Dr. Doering continued their illicit relationship. Although Dr. Doering was aware that plaintiff was being treated by Dr. Levine, the couple discussed the subject "only in the vaguest sense." Plaintiff continued to experience anxiety and sleeplessness. On several occasions, she asked Dr. Doering for nembutal. Initially, Dr. Doering refused but he subsequently relented. According to plaintiff's testimony, Dr. Doering gave her a prescription for nembutal which she destroyed. She testified that he subsequently gave her a bottle containing ten nembutal pills. Dr. Doering denied having provided plaintiff with the medication. He admitted, however, that he had given her a prescription for a small quantity of nembutal pills. Dr. Doering testified that he prescribed the medication because he was concerned that plaintiff's insomnia "might hinder" the progress of her psychiatric treatment.

As noted previously, Dr. Doering had been impotent for some period of time. However, on June 23, 1981, Dr. Doering was able to have an erection and the couple engaged in intercourse. Plaintiff believed that the event was significant and might ultimately precipitate a decision by Dr. Doering to leave his wife. On the following morning, plaintiff telephoned Dr. Doering and mentioned that she was considering moving to her parents' home in Connecticut. Contrary to plaintiff's expectation, Dr. Doering made no attempt to dissuade her but rather suggested that such a course was the "correct one" and would "be best for all of us." Dr. Doering also told plaintiff that he would not leave his wife.

On the next morning, plaintiff locked the doors to her house and swallowed ten nembutal pills. According to plaintiff, she was "desperate" and wanted to die. After ingesting the pills, plaintiff telephoned Dr. Doering who immediately contacted the police. Plaintiff was transported ...


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