In an $8.5 million court settlement, a Brainerd doctor and clinic have admitted that they negligently provided methadone to a patient who injected the potent medication and caused a car wreck on the drive home that killed two people.
But the liability insurers for Dr. John Stroemer and his Pinnacle methadone clinic are now arguing that they aren’t responsible for the settlement amount, and so it’s not clear when the families will receive payment.
Nevertheless, the families of the victims, Carlton County road workers Zachary Gamache and Mitchell Lingren, feel a sense of justice over the public admission of negligence, said their attorney, Philip Sieff.
“Do they have cash in their pocket? No,” said Sieff, of the Robins Kaplan firm in Minneapolis. “But that wasn’t what this was all about in the first place … The families were highly motivated to try to bring to light what continues to be a serious problem” in how methadone is dispensed.
The October 2012 incident began when patient Vanessa Brigan drove 100 miles from her home in Cloquet to the Pinnacle clinic to receive methadone, a drug that helps people overcome addictions to opioids such as morphine but has addictive qualities and dangers of its own.
Despite knowing she wasn’t supposed to drive while taking methadone, Brigan injected the drug illicitly and tried to return home. Shortly before 9 a.m. Oct. 1, 2012, her car crossed the median on a rural stretch of Highway 210 and triggered a fatal three-car collision.
Brigan was sentenced in 2014 to six years in jail.
The victims’ families argued that Stroemer and clinic staff missed numerous signs, including needle marks on Brigan’s arms, that she was abusing the medication and represented a risk to drive home while under its influence.
Their case received a boost last September when Stroemer, and not just his clinic, were named as defendants, and the judge allowed the families to pursue punitive monetary damages for their suffering.
Under terms of the settlement, the Lingren family will receive 75 percent of the money because Lingren left behind a wife and children.
Sieff said he is pursuing legal remedies to compel payment by the two insurers — the Minnesota Joint Underwriting Association and West Bend Mutual Insurance Co.
Specially designated methadone clinics have taken on increased in importance in Minnesota in the wake of an increase in overprescribing and a spike in the number of patients addicted to legal prescription opioids and illegal ones such as heroin.
Some clinics have sustained disciplinary actions, though, for failing to assess and monitor patients before dispensing methadone, a synthetic drug that reduces cravings for opioids by occupying the same receptors in the brain that opioids target.
Sieff said he and his clients hope the public settlement will encourage safer prescribing practices statewide.