Doctor Not Liable for Dementia Patient's Fatal Crash

[This article was originally published on September 7, 2012.  The links were updated on June 13, 2018.]

A California jury has found that a doctor has no responsibility for a fatal car crash caused by an 85-year-old patient whom he had diagnosed with dementia but not reported to authorities. 

Lorraine Sullivan was driving with her longtime partner William Powers, 90, when she suddenly turned left and into the path of an oncoming car.  Sullivan survived but Powers died of his injuries.  As reported in the Los Angeles Times, Powers’ family sued Sullivan’s doctor, Arthur Daigneault, for wrongful death, arguing that he should have taken steps to have Sullivan’s license revoked.

Doctors are generally not required to report patients they believe are unsafe, but California is one of a handful of states that has such a rule. California requires doctors to report to local health officials patients with "disorders characterized by lapses of consciousness," including dementia.  However, doctors may use their own clinical judgment about whether a patient is a danger on the road.

In 2007, Sullivan complained of memory loss to Dr. Daigneault.  After tests showed a slight decline in cognitive functioning over the following year, Dr. Daigneault prescribed an Alzheimer’s drug, and then switched her to a different drug when she said her memory loss was worsening.  Sullivan’s daughter testified that her mother, whom she saw weekly, successfully hid her dementia diagnosis from her.   

After deliberating for half an hour, an Orange County jury found that Dr. Daigneault did not violate standards of care or state law by not reporting Sullivan to authorities.

The Los Angeles Times notes that “the case casts a spotlight on a problem that will grow more common as the population ages and doctors see more dementia and other conditions related to old age, such as slowed reflexes, lack of alertness and diseases that can trigger lapses of consciousness.”  Drivers 80 and older are involved in 5.5 times as many fatal crashes per mile driven as middle-aged drivers, according to Consumer Reports.  Fifty-seven million drivers older than 65 are expected to be driving U.S. roads by 2030, nearly double the 2007 figure.

The potential risks of elderly drivers gained nationwide attention when a an 86-year-old man drove his car into a farmers market in Santa Monica, California, in July 2003, killing 10 people and injuring 63.  Three years later the driver, George Weller, was found guilty of 10 counts of vehicular manslaughter but was sentenced to five years' felony probation due to his advanced age.  Weller died in 2010.

For an article on confronting an unsafe driver, click here.