A husband’s wrongful death lawsuit alleges that his wife’s doctor caused her death last year by prescribing a wide array of psychotropic medications. The suit further claims that the doctor defrauded her of nearly half a million dollars, which she contributed towards his research funding while under the influence of these medications. The two types of claims, brought in a single lawsuit, raise uncomfortable questions about the doctor/patient relationship.
Phyllis Harvey, described as a philanthropist who formed a foundation with her husband, Brian Harvey, to fund scholarships and engage in other charitable activities, died last year at the age of 59. She reportedly had a history of mental illness and alcoholism, and was diagnosed in 1999 with possible bipolar disorder, schizophrenia, or early dementia. She sought treatment from Dr. Alexander Bystritsky, a physician at the University of California, Los Angeles, beginning in 2004. Dr. Bystritsky allegedly put her on a regimen of multiple psychotropic medications, even though the 1999 diagnoses were never fully confirmed. Her prescribed medications included the anti-psychotic drug Seroquel and the anti-anxiety sedative Ativan.
According to the lawsuit, Harvey was hospitalized for heart abnormalities and for benzodiazepine overdoses on several occasions, and was taken off the medications. Dr. Bystritsky would put her back on the same medications upon her discharge from the hospital. She reportedly relapsed on her alcoholism in 2009, telling a hospital doctor that she was taking Ativan as well as drinking a bottle of liquor every day, which can be a fatal combination. She also suffered from hallucinations. She died of sudden cardiac arrest on April 5, 2011, allegedly due to alterations of her heart rhythm caused by Seroquel. In the two months immediately prior to her death, Dr. Bystritsky allegedly prescribed her 180 tablets of Seroquel over a seventeen-day period. She was reportedly taking eight other medications during that time, including benzodiazepines and the schizophrenia drug Invega.
During the time he was treating her, Harvey reportedly contributed about $490,000 towards Dr. Bystritsky’s research. In particular, the lawsuit claims, Dr. Bystritsky solicited donations from Harvey to fund research into a device he invented that he claimed might cure her. According to the Associated Press, Dr. Bystritsky is the head of UCLA’s anxiety disorders program, but also partly owns a private company called Braintronix, which is developing an ultrasound device that would treat depression, autism, and other brain disorders by modulating brain function. The company is reportedly collaborating with UCLA and Harvard Medical School on the device.
Brian Harvey filed a complaint with the Medical Board of California, and then filed a wrongful death lawsuit in the Superior Court of Los Angeles County, naming both Dr. Bystritsky and the UCLA Board of Regents as defendants. The lawsuit claims wrongful death from medical negligence, intentional infliction of emotional distress, fraud, and fraudulent concealment. Harvey’s husband reportedly declined to press criminal charges, possibly because of the difficulty of proving that the doctor intended to harm Harvey. The case, as pleaded by Brian Harvey, raises clear questions of medical malpractice, but it may also have an impact on medical ethics and the relationship between doctors’ treatment of patients and fundraising.
At Lebowitz & Mzhen, we help people in the Washington, DC area recover their just compensation when they have suffered injuries due to the negligent or unlawful conduct of medical professionals, including doctors. For a free and confidential consultation, contact us today online or at (800) 654-1949.
Case Summary (PDF), Harvey v. Regents of the University of Calif., et al, Superior Court of Los Angeles County
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Utah Supreme Court Allows Claims Against Doctors for Third-Party Injuries, Washington DC Injury Lawyer Blog, April 20, 2012
Jury Awards $9 Million to Couple in Medical Malpractice Lawsuit, Washington DC Injury Lawyer Blog, November 17, 2011
Photo credit: ‘UCLA Entrance Sign’ by Chris Radcliff from San Diego, CA, USA (UCLA) [CC-BY-SA-2.0 or CC-BY-2.0], via Wikimedia Commons.