UVM faces drug-related wrongful death suit

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(Host) The substance abuse center at the University of Vermont faces a wrongful death suit stemming from a traffic accident two years ago. A patient at the center killed three people while driving home after being given a drug to treat his heroin addiction. The suit says UVM officials ignored safeguards and should have known the drug would make the patient drowsy. But prosecutors have charged the driver with manslaughter. And UVM says it’s not responsible for the accident.

VPR’s John Dillon reports.

(Dillon) About the only thing that the two sides in this lawsuit agree on is that what happened on November 29, 2001 was a horrible tragedy. On the afternoon of that late fall day, Kevin Baker picked up two co-workers and headed down the road for his job at the IBM plant in Essex Junction.

Driving the other way on Route 15 in Johnson was Theodore Pecor, a young heroin addict. Pecor fell asleep, crossed the center line, and collided with Baker’s car. The crash killed Baker and his two passengers.

(David Sleigh) “It’s our claim that the substance abuse center dosed Mr. Pecor with buprenorphine, that anyone who has any familiarity with the drug knows that it has a sedative effect.”

(Dillon) David Sleigh is the lawyer for Kevin Baker’s family. He says the UVM drug treatment center gave Pecor buprenorphine, a relatively new treatment for heroin addiction.

According to Sleigh, the center failed to follow its own procedures by making sure Pecor didn’t drive after he took the drug. He says the center was supposed to make sure Pecor stayed overnight at the hospital if he was too drowsy to drive.

(Sleigh) “The forms that Pecor signed say explicitly that he’s not to drive home, that the treatment center is not to release him if he’s to drive by himself. Even though the forms are filled out with contrary information, when the clinic hit closing time out the door he went. And they put him in a car and sent him on his way.”

(Dillon) Pecor has been charged with vehicular manslaughter. Police say that after the accident he tested positive for heroin and marijuana.

Pecor’s defense in the criminal case follows the same argument that Sleigh has made. He claims the UVM drug clinic should not have let him drive away.

But UVM spokesman Enrique Correderra says the university’s treatment center should not be blamed for the tragedy.

(Correderra) “Well, first of all, we offer our condolences to the victim’s families. But UVM is in no way responsible for their terrible loss.”

(Dillon) According to Correderra, in this case UVM strictly followed medical guidelines on buprenorphine.

(Corederra) “And the protocols are in place essentially to ensure that one, a safe dosage is administered, that patients are closely monitored during treatment, that patients are carefully evaluated prior to release to ensure that they are not experiencing any adverse effects.”

(Dillon) Both the criminal case against Pecor and the civil suit against UVM are pending in the courts.

For Vermont Public Radio, I’m John Dillon.

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