A recent wrongful death case brought in a Los Angeles courtroom looks to clarify what – if any – responsibility that physicians treating elderly patients with neurological deficits caused by such conditions as dementia or Alzheimer’s have for torts committed by those patients. The potentially landmark case arises from a 2010 motor vehicle accident where an octogenarian dementia patient drove into oncoming traffic with catastrophic results.
The spring 2010 day of the accident began like countless others: the driver, 85-year-old Lorraine Sullivan, was taking her longtime companion, 90-year-old William Powers, on a grocery-shopping trip. The couple was returning from the store when Sullivan made an errant left turn into the path of an oncoming car that then struck the passenger side of her vehicle, causing serious injuries to Powers.
Sullivan herself suffered head injuries, but has since recovered. Powers succumbed to his injuries about six weeks after the accident. His children brought this wrongful death suit afterwards, once they found out that Sullivan had been diagnosed with dementia and was being treated by a local physician.
The rationale behind the suit
William Powers’ surviving family members, two children, brought this suit against physician Dr. Arthur Daigneault on the basis that since Daigneault had been treating Sullivan for more than two years for incrementally increasing dementia, he was obligated to notify public health authorities, thus kicking off the process that could have stripped Sullivan of her driving privileges.
California, like several other states, has endured a spate of high-profile car accidents in recent years involving elderly drivers with some form of diminished physical or mental capacity injuring or killing others. A particularly bad accident in 2003 made headlines around the country. That crash involved an 86-year-old man plowing through a crowded farmer’s market, killing 10. Just this month, a 100-year-old driver backed into a crowd at a Los Angeles school, injuring 14, 12 of them children.
Some issues often seen in older drivers can spell disaster behind the wheel. These include:
- Slowed reflexes
- Inability to adequately steer the car because of arthritis
- Periods of semi- or full unconsciousness due to medications or neurological conditions
- Brain “fogginess”
- Forgetfulness (such that would cause a driver to not check blind spots or not alert other motorists of an intention to change lanes)
- Vision problems
The balance between personal freedom and public safety
California is definitely not alone in its need to balance the personal freedom of older drivers with the safety of countless motorists, bicyclists and pedestrians sharing the roadways with them. It is a difficult balance, one that the drivers themselves, family members, state agencies and doctors struggle to maintain.
The problem is not going away, though. In fact, it is a rapidly growing issue, especially given government statistics that there will be an estimated 57 million drivers over the age of 65 on the roads of America by 2030. It is logical to assume that with more elderly and less agile drivers on the road, there will be more accidents involving them. If you or a loved one has been injured in an accident caused by an incapacitated driver or one who should have long since stopped climbing behind the wheel, seek the advice of an experienced personal injury attorney in your area to learn more about your legal rights and options for holding the responsible parties accountable.