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Lawsuit targets methadone clinic for driver’s actions in fatal Carlton County crash

Tom Olsen

Forum News Service

Vanessa Brigan was sentenced to six years in prison after she admitted that she injected methadone directly into her bloodstream — against doctors’ orders — before causing an October 2012 traffic accident that killed two Carlton County workers.

Now, the Brainerd clinic that gave Brigan the take-home dose of the drug, a treatment for her morphine addiction, finds itself at the center of a legal battle.

A judge this month denied Pinnacle Recovery Services’ motion to dismiss two wrongful death lawsuits filed by the families of the crash victims. The ruling, the first of its kind in Minnesota, could open the door for future legal actions against Minnesota clinics, which have drawn substantial criticism, despite praise for the effectiveness of methadone in treating addiction to opioids like heroin and morphine.

“I hope this is an eye opener for clinics, regulators and legislators, who ought to be taking a very hard look at how these clinics operate,” said Philip Sieff, a Minneapolis-based attorney for the plaintiffs.

The lawsuits, filed in Carlton County by the families of Zachary Gamache and Mitchell Lingren, allege that Pinnacle was negligent in administering methadone to Brigan and failing to take steps to ensure that she would not attempt to drive back to her home in Cloquet, about 100 miles away, while under the influence of the drug.

The clinic sought dismissal of the claims, arguing that it had no duty or ability to control Brigan’s actions outside the facility.

Sixth Judicial District Judge Sally Tarnowski rejected the clinic’s argument, writing in a 20-page order and memorandum that there exists sufficient evidence for a jury to consider.

“Pinnace was aware of the fact that methadone is a narcotic that has the ability to affect one’s ability to safely operate a motor vehicle,” Tarnowski wrote. “Still, Pinnacle, after taking affirmative action in dispensing the medication, failed to take additional steps to ensure she would not be operating a motor vehicle.”

Clinic’s duties debated

The suits allege that Brigan showed signs of sedation and impairment when she arrived at the clinic early on the morning of Oct. 1, 2012. She received a dose of methadone, which she drank while in the clinic. Pinnacle also provided her with a take-home dose.

Brigan admitted that she left the clinic and stopped at a gas station, where she injected the second dose intravenously, and continued to drive home along Minnesota Highway 210.

Near Wright, Brigan crossed over the center line of the two-lane highway, striking Gamache and Lingren’s truck. The impact sent their vehicle careening across the road, where it was struck by another truck hauling construction equipment. Gamache, 25, and Lingren, 29, were killed.

The families subsequently filed the suits, seeking in excess of $50,000 each.

“The goal is two-fold: to bring justice for the families of these completely innocent victims and to shine a bright light on the practices of methadone clinics,” Sieff said in an interview. “I very much hope both goals are reached.”

Representing Pinnacle is Minneapolis attorney Gregory Bulinski, who declined to comment on the pending litigation. However, Bulinski argued in court documents that the claims lack precedent and are without merit.

In a memorandum supporting his motion to dismiss, Bulinski called the plaintiffs’ arguments “simplistic” and said there was no way that “Pinnacle knew or should have known that Brigan would engage in such illegal conduct.”

“It appears undisputed that Brigan’s egregious, criminal conduct resulted in the senseless deaths of two innocent bystanders,” Bulinski wrote. “It is for that reason that Brigan remains incarcerated to this day.

“But Minnesota law precludes imposition of liability on Pinnacle because it had no ability to control Brigan’s actions. Nor was the harm caused by Brigan’s actions foreseeable.”

Sieff said there have been no settlement talks with the clinic and that he is prepared to take the case to a trial, which is scheduled to be heard in Duluth next July.

Brigan is also named as a defendant, as are Christopher Hecker, who was operating the truck that struck the victims’ vehicle, and his employer, Peterson Towing of Nisswa.

Human Services responds

The Minnesota Department of Human Services, which licenses and regulates methadone clinics in the state, opened an investigation into the incident, but determined that it had no jurisdiction in the matter because it did not involve a vulnerable adult.

Jerry Kerber, the department’s inspector general, said it appears that Pinnacle met all of its legal requirements. Brigan had signed an agreement stating that she would not drive under the influence of the drug, and clinics are authorized to give patients take-home doses.

“Sometimes individuals engage in criminal behavior, and they have their own wherewithal to be making decisions about their behavior,” Kerber said. “We recognize that we can’t have artificial and unrealistic expectations that somebody else is going to be able to control everybody who might engage in criminal behavior.”

The Minnesota Legislature last year approved legislation that turned over more regulatory power to the Department of Human Services and introduced additional restrictions on methadone distribution.

Kerber acknowledged that methadone clinics have come under scrutiny, but said the drug remains an effective treatment option that should not be discredited. He said the agency continues to look at potential regulations that could be proposed to the Legislature.

“This is an important service, it’s been shown to be very effective in helping specific individuals be very productive members of society despite their addiction,” he said. “When there are problems with the delivery of service, it invites people to question this type of service itself, and that gets to be unfortunate. What we’re very interested in is making sure there’s good integrity to this treatment approach so that the public can be comfortably accepting of it.”