No one expected a very large award, let alone $11.9 million, in this suicide malpractice case involving the antidepressant Paxil (paroxetine). The jury verdict on September 15, 2016 was gratifying and encouraging (Family of Pennsylvania jail suicide victim awarded $11.9M, $11.8M Federal Medical Malpractice Verdict For Prison Inmate’s Suicide). It demonstrates that the judicial system and the public are becoming increasingly aware of the hazards of psychiatric drugs, including their capacity to make people behave in ways that are harmful to themselves and others, and contrary to their past behavior and character.
Great success seemed unlikely in this case. To begin with, suicide malpractice suits are very difficult to win. Juries understandably want to hold people responsible for their behavior when they kill themselves. I was going to testify that a single dose of Prozac 30 mg was the main cause of his suicide, a conclusion that other experts would vigorously challenge.
In addition, the case was in an area of the country where juries are conservative about giving monetary awards to plaintiffs. It was in the U.S. District Court for middle Pennsylvania in the city of Scranton.
Juries also tend to look askance at claims made on behalf of people in jail. Mr. Mumun Barbaros, the deceased victim, was in his fourth day of incarceration, awaiting release on bail. The judge did not allow the jury to know the nature of his alleged crime or the charges against him, and I was not permitted to comment on them. If allowed, I would have testified that Paxil-induced disinhibition drove him to vandalize the property of a man in a competing business.
Some people are also less sympathetic to naturalized citizens with strong ties to their countries of origin. Mr. Barbaros was a Bulgarian who became a citizen, but his wife and children spent only part of the year with him and he sent back large amounts of his earnings from his tavern to his extended family back home.
Finally, the case had scientific complexities that the jury had to understand.
The defendants were the independent healthcare provider to the jail, PrimeCare, and several of its personnel or contractors assigned to the jail. Mr. Barbaros had been taking Paxil for anxiety for many years, along with the sedating antidepressant trazodone to help him sleep.
At the time of his arrest, Mr. Barbaros reported that he needed his medication. Due to a series of errors upon the part of the healthcare personnel, his request for medication went unfilled for four days. By the second and third day, Mr. Barbaros develop headaches and hypertension, and his chronic stomach problem worsened, but no one attributed these symptoms to withdrawal. However, his intake evaluation and contacts with healthcare providers documented an absence of suicidal thoughts and revealed no great distress.
When the staff finally confirmed Mr. Barbaros’ medications, a licensed practical nurse (LPN) from the jail phoned the psychiatrist on call and asked him to prescribe the Paxil 30 mg and trazodone 100 mg. The LPN did not offer the doctor any information about Mr. Barbaros, such as his age, the reason he was taking the medications, how long he had been taking them, and how long he had been without them in jail. The psychiatrist, in turn, did not ask the nurse any questions, but simply authorized the drugs.
I testified that the psychiatrist’s actions were worse than practicing medicine negligently—he was not practicing medicine at all. He was more like a vending machine. I further testified that this was callous disregard, especially since he admitted to knowing that the drug had dangers associated with it, including suicide, and yet asked no information about the patient, did not come in to see him, and ordered no special supervision.
Following his first morning dose of the Paxil, Mr. Barbaros was seen for a routine evaluation by a staff psychologist in the mid-afternoon. At this point, Mr. Barbaros was drastically changed. He was no longer a man who conversed easily and showed no signs of significant stress, anxiety or depression. According to the psychologist’s deposition, Mr. Barbaros now looked extremely anxious and like a “cornered rat,” spoke very little, made poor eye contact, and looked hunched over and withdrawn. In the psychologist’s scantily written report, his only diagnosis was “rule out depression,” an entirely new diagnosis for Mr. Barbaros.
I attributed these drastic changes in Mr. Barbaros’ condition to the impact of the large dose of Paxil. The psychologist had not checked to see what medications Mr. Barbaros was taking. He did not check the medical record and therefore did not know that his current severely anxious and withdrawn state was entirely new for him during his incarceration. He did not ask his patient if he was suicidal.
In my direct examination, I testified that restarting the patient on his regular dose of Paxil 30 mg, despite a hiatus of at least four days without the medication, was a direct cause of the suicide later on the same day. Restarting him on Paxil 30 mg, when most of the drug was out of his system, caused akathisia (agitation with hyperactivity) and suicide. I also found that the doctor and the psychologist were negligent in several other ways, including their failure to evaluate the patient and to order careful monitoring.
I further explained that Paxil (paroxetine) is a selective serotonin reuptake inhibitor (SSRI) antidepressant. All antidepressants can cause suicidal and homicidal behavior, especially those like the SSRIs that routinely cause stimulation or activation, including akathisia, agitation, insomnia, disinhibition, emotional lability, hypomania and mania, and a general worsening of the patient’s condition. Of all the antidepressants, Paxil was the only one to show a statistically significant association with suicide in depressed adults in the short and deeply flawed clinical trials used for FDA approval of the drug.
To back me up, I brought a number of documents, including a 2006 letter from the manufacturer to all healthcare providers admitting to the association between Paxil and suicide in depressed adult patients, and further warning that this risk might apply to patients with other diagnoses. I also brought a copy of the 2006 Full Prescribing Information for Paxil that carried the same warning about suicide in adults, before the drug company got the FDA to delete it in later editions. I had written about the subject of medication-induced suicide in my book, Medication Madness: The Role of Psychiatric Drugs in Cases of Violence, Suicide and Crime.
One of the more dramatic moments in my testimony came on the first series of questions during cross-examination. When I began reviewing the case, I was asked to focus on Mr. Barbaros’ medical record going back approximately six years to the time when his primary care doctor had started him on Paxil 10 mg, apparently without difficulty, and then raised it gradually to 20 mg and then 30 mg. To be thorough, I examined all the remaining extensive medical records and came upon something remarkable buried within them that had previously escaped attention.
The day after his first dose of Paxil 10 mg, Mr. Barbaros became so anxious that he thought he was having a heart attack and sought immediate help at a local medical clinic separate from his primary care physician who prescribed the Paxil. That clinic referred him to a cardiologist on an emergency basis who evaluated him and found no physical disorder. These doctors treated Mr. Barbaros’ anxiety with prescriptions for a benzodiazepine tranquilizer.
Mr. Barbaros had experienced a very severe anxiety reaction to his first dose of Paxil, but it apparently never entered his mind that Paxil was causing it. From the medical record, it looks like he never told the emergency clinic or the cardiologist he had recently started taking Paxil and he never told his primary care doctor, when he returned for follow up later on, that he had been so anxious that he went to a cardiologist and received sedative tranquilizers. It is very common for individuals to fail to realize that their acute psychiatric emergencies are being caused by their psychiatric medication. I call this phenomenon “medication spellbinding” or intoxication anosognosia.
As a medical expert in a product liability case against GlaxoSmithKline, the manufacturer of Paxil, I had discovered from the company’s secret files that Paxil frequently caused severe psychiatric adverse reactions during the first few doses. I had published an article about this in the hope of alerting people to the risk. This earlier work of mine enhanced the credibility of my discussion.
So… when I was asked at the beginning of cross-examination to explain why Mr. Barbaros would have such a bad reaction to being restarted on Paxil since he never had a bad reaction to being started many years earlier, I had an unexpected answer. I could reply and document from the medical records that, in fact, he had a drastic psychiatric reaction to the original 10 mg dose but no one recognized that it was related to the Paxil. The defense attorney was so flummoxed by my revelation that he never even asked to see the relevant medical records. The cross-examination then went on for an unexpectedly long time, requiring me to come back a second day. The defense probably was hoping that the jury would forget the revelation I had disclosed in the first few minutes.
The jury not only found that PrimeCare and several of its practitioners and staff had been negligent, they further concluded that the company and most of the individual defendants acted with deliberate indifference to Mr. Barbaros’ medical needs.
Despite a vigorous challenge by the defendants’ attorneys, the judge qualified me as an expert in psychiatry, psychopharmacology and the specific drug Paxil. In the trial, other experts testified for the plaintiffs concerning the nursing care and administrative policies of the healthcare provider, as well as the violent method of Mr. Barbaros’ death by gagging himself.
The jury award included $2.8 million for negligence, $1.06 million for federal deliberate indifference and $8 million for punitive damages. The case is Ponzini et al. v. Monroe County et al., case number 3:11-cv-00413, in the U.S. District Court for the Middle District of Pennsylvania. The attorney for the plaintiff was Brian Chacker of Philadelphia. He worked extraordinarily hard and with great diligence on the case.
I do believe that the success of this case reflects greater awareness within the public and the judicial system concerning the dangers of psychiatric drugs.
Mad in America hosts blogs by a diverse group of writers. These posts are designed to serve as a public forum for a discussion—broadly speaking—of psychiatry and its treatments. The opinions expressed are the writers’ own.