Supreme Court Reverses Summary Judgment; Jury To Hear Wreck Case

By Dana Beyerle Times Montgomery Bureau

MONTGOMERY – A Gadsden methadone clinic operator should have known a patient on other drugs and methadone was a danger on the highways, the Supreme Court said Friday. The court in a personal injury lawsuit said Dr. Kenny E. Smith should have known the methadone he gave patient Glenda Ennis of Grant combined with other drugs she tested positive for prior to her treatment could result in a traffic accident.

The court 7-0 ruled in an Etowah County lawsuit by a Marshall County woman who was severely injured when the vehicle she was in collided with Ennis’ car that had crossed over Marshall County 5 into her lane of traffic on Sept. 8, 2000, the court said.

An Etowah County Circuit judge ruled in favor of Smith, but the Supreme Court reversed the summary judgment and said the lawsuit filed by Lola Ann Taylor and her husband, Billy J. Taylor, should be heard.

Their attorney, Joe King of Huntsville, was elated.

“We will go back and the case will be tried in front of a jury,” King said Friday. “The lady sustained crippling injuries.”

Smith’s lawyer, Joseph Miller, couldn’t be reached for comment.

The court said Ennis had been getting methadone for her addiction following her initial April 4, 2000, visit to the Gadsden Treatment Center. Her personal history form chronicled the daily use of marijuana and use of the drugs found in Xanax and Valium.

Methadone is a substitute for opiates such as heroin.

She got methadone at 6 a.m. on Sept. 8, 2000, and drove away. The accident happened at 7:23 a.m.

Court testimony showed that Ennis had tested positive for other drugs in 13 of the 14 times she was tested, including two days before the accident. Records showed she reported no desire to stop drugs and she was not attending counseling.

“Thus, she was receiving methadone, not in lieu of illegal drugs, but in addition to them,” Justice Tom Woodall wrote for the majority.

An expert witness said a combination of her drugs could cause someone to fall asleep at the wheel and Smith should have known it.

Smith said Alabama’s Medical Liability Act precludes any duty to a non-patient but the court rejected the argument.

Smith also said public policy considerations “counsel against extending the duty of due care to third parties” because it will result in ending out-patient methadone treatment in Alabama. “I hope it will,” King responded.

The court held that Smith’s policy considerations do not justify the risk of releasing “a dangerously medicated” patient on the roads without potential liability to the doctor who gave the patient the drug.

Dana Beyerle is Montgomery Bureau chief for the New York Times Regional Newspapers.

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