Taylor v. Smith

Decision Date12 March 2004
Citation892 So.2d 887
PartiesLola Ann TAYLOR and Billy J. Taylor v. Dr. Kenny E. SMITH.
CourtAlabama Supreme Court

Gary V. Conchin and Joe A. King, Jr., of Morris, Conchin, Banks & Cooper, Huntsville, for appellants.

Michael A. Florie, Joseph S. Miller, and J. Will Axon, Jr., of Starnes & Atchison, LLP, Birmingham, for appellee.

WOODALL, Justice.1

Lola Ann Taylor and her husband, Billy J. Taylor, appeal from a summary judgment in favor of Dr. Kenny E. Smith in the Taylors' action against him for personal injuries arising out of an automobile accident involving Lola and Glenda Ennis, one of Dr. Smith's patients. We reverse and remand.

The dispositive facts are undisputed. On April 4, 2000, Ennis visited The Gadsden Treatment Center, Inc. ("the Center"), which operated under the directorship of Dr. Smith, to begin treatment of an opiate addiction. Her treatment was provided on an outpatient basis, and included the administration of methadone.2

In connection with commencement of her treatment, Ennis signed a document styled "Contract for Methadone Treatment Using Methadone and Supportive Counseling" ("the contract"). The contract provided:

"I, Glenda Ennis, have agreed to participate in The Gadsden Treatment Center, Inc., methadone program and I understand that the treatment will consist of supportive counseling and methadone medication, if indicated. I further understand that the [Center's] objective will be to work towards achieving the following goals within 24 months:
"1. Administering methadone in appropriate doses in order to achieve a `blockade' effect (which is tolerance to the euphoric and depressant action of narcotics) and to eliminate the physical cravings for morphine and heroin or other morphine-like drugs.
"2. To provide supportive counseling to help me to:
"a. Improve my employability.
"b. Improve my legal status. "c. Improve my physical health.
"d. Improve my social status and self image.
"e. Achieve a drug free lifestyle within 24 months.
"I further understand that in order for me to continue as an active member of this treatment program and to be able to receive both my medication and counseling, I must follow the rules and regulations prescribed by this treatment facility. I understand that if I choose to violate these rules, I may be discharged from this program permanently and forever. I have been informed that the [Center] allows methadone maintenance treatment for 24 months continuously. If I have not made progress toward achieving the [Center's] objective toward achieving a drug free status (off all drugs including methadone) within this time period, I may receive a medically safe detox (MSD) at the end of 24 months and remain off methadone for 30 days before being considered for readmission to methadone treatment. If I have made progress towards achieving the [Center's] objective, methadone maintenance can be extended. I am aware that I have the option of continuing in counseling if I so desire while awaiting readmission for methadone treatment."

(Emphasis added.) Ennis also completed a form styled "Substance Abuse History," chronicling her drug dependence. According to this history, Ennis was a "daily" user of marijuana and of certain benzodiazepines, namely, the prescription drugs Xanax and Valium. Based on information Ennis provided in her initial contacts with the Center, it was assumed at the Center that she was not being treated elsewhere by other physicians.

From April 4, 2000, to October 4, 2000, the Center performed 14 urinalyses to monitor the substances Ennis was using. Thirteen of those urinalyses revealed the presence of either marijuana, benzodiazepines, or both, in addition to methadone. Moreover, clinical notes kept by the Center, dated June 21, 2000, and July 25, 2000, reflect that Ennis was not attending group counseling sessions and "report[ed] having no desire to stop using."

Ennis visited the Center virtually every day from April 4, 2000, until September 8, 2000, and she received a dose of methadone at each visit. After receiving her daily dose of methadone at the Center, Ennis would drive herself home, an approximately 90-minute trip. On September 8, 2000, Ennis received 85 milligrams of methadone at approximately 6:00 a.m. and drove away from the Center. At 7:23 a.m., Ennis's automobile crossed into the lane of oncoming traffic and collided with an automobile being driven by Lola Taylor.

Subsequently, the Taylors sued Dr. Smith and others. Regarding Dr. Smith, the complaint alleged, in pertinent part:

"28. Prior to September 8, 2000, [Dr. Smith was] aware that Ennis had consistently tested positive for drugs other than the opiate replacement drugs that [he] provided to her.
"29. On September 8, 2000, at approximately [6:00] a.m., Ennis was a patient of [Dr. Smith's]. As part of her treatment, she received a dosage of liquid methadone.
"30. On September 8, 2000, at approximately 6:00 a.m., [Dr. Smith] allowed Ennis to leave The Center's premises while under the influence of methadone. At the time, [Dr. Smith] allowed Ennis to leave the premises, [he was] aware that she resided over ninety minutes away in Grant, Alabama.
"31. On September 8, 2000, at approximately 7:23 a.m. on County Road 5 in Grant, Alabama, Ennis, under the influence of methadone, lost control of her automobile and collided with the automobile occupied by Plaintiff Lola Ann Taylor.
"32. Defendant Dr. Smith negligently cared for, monitored and/or supervised the treatment provided Ennis as follows:
"c. Dr. Smith failed to properly monitor and/or supervise Ennis while she was under the influence of methadone;
"d. Dr. Smith failed to adequately determine the proper dosage of methadone that should be administered to Ennis;
"e. Dr. Smith failed to implement a proper procedure for monitoring patients after receiving methadone treatments that would have prevented Ennis from leaving The Center and subsequently causing an automobile accident.
"f. Dr. Smith failed to intervene and prevent Ennis from leaving The Center while she was under the influence of methadone.
"33. Dr. Smith owed a duty to Plaintiff Lola Ann Taylor, who was driving on a public roadway, not to discharge Ennis, who was impaired and could not operate a motor vehicle in a responsible and safe manner.
"34. As a direct and proximate result or consequence of Dr. Smith's negligence in regards to the care, monitoring, and/or supervising, Ennis, under the influence of methadone, lost control of her automobile and collided with the automobile which contained the plaintiff Lola Ann Taylor."

The Taylors sought damages for Lola's personal injuries and Billy's loss of consortium. Dr. Smith moved for a summary judgment on the sole ground that "no duty existed between [him] and [Lola Taylor]."

In opposition to Dr. Smith's summary-judgment motion, the Taylors filed the affidavit of Dr. Nathan R. Strahl, "Medical Director at Raleigh Methadone Clinic." He stated, in pertinent part:

"Methadone is a synthetic narcotic analgesic, which acts on the central nervous system and can alter the patient's perception. Methadone may very well impair the mental and/or physical abilities required for the performance of potentially hazardous tasks, such as driving a car or operating machinery....
"Combining methadone with benzodiazepines and marijuana can cause serious and potentially dangerous side effects.... These side effects include, but are not limited to, poor concentration, drowsiness and sedation. The combination of methadone with benzodiazepines and marijuana can greatly impair the mental and/or physical abilities required for the safe performance of potentially hazardous tasks, such as driving a car.... A reasonably foreseeable consequence of an individual operating a motor vehicle while combining methadone with benzodiazepines and marijuana is that a vehicle accident may occur and other persons may be injured. A medical director of a methadone clinic should have knowledge of this.
"I have reviewed the records of [Ennis] from the [Center].... Ms. Ennis indicated in her drug history on 4/4/00 that she was using Lorcet, Dilaudid, Valium, Xanax, and marijuana on a daily basis. These drugs can cause adverse reactions and enhancing side effects when combined with methadone. From April 4, 2000, until September 8, 2000, Ms. Ennis's urinalysis tested positive for drugs other than methadone on a consistent basis. Of twelve (12) urinalyses performed, Ms. Ennis tested positive for drugs other than methadone on eleven (11) occasions. Of the eleven (11) `dirty' [urine analyses], ten indicated Benzodiazepines. Of the eleven (11) `dirty' [urine analyses], seven (7) indicated THC levels (which correspond to marijuana).
"The foregoing facts concerning Ms. Ennis's treatment should have drawn concern from the Medical Director of the Gadsden Treatment Center that a dangerous situation was evident and continuing regarding Ms. Ennis's methadone treatment. It is apparent that Ms. Ennis was combining prescribed methadone with other illicit drugs, which could have serious adverse reactions and side effects."

The trial court granted Dr. Smith's summary-judgment motion on the "ground that a doctor does not owe a legal duty to a third party non-patient," and certified the judgment as final, pursuant to Ala. R. Civ. P. 54(b). The Taylors appealed, contending that the trial court erred in concluding that Dr. Smith owed Lola no duty.

In Alabama, the existence of a duty is a strictly legal question to be determined by the court. Wal-Mart Stores, Inc. v. Smitherman, 872 So.2d 833 (Ala.2003); Ex parte Farmers Exch. Bank, 783 So.2d 24, 27 (Ala.2000). See also State Farm Fire & Cas. Co. v. Owen, 729 So.2d 834 (Ala.1998). The existence of a duty is determined by a number of factors, including "(1) the nature of the defendant's activity; (2) the relationship between the parties; and (3) the type of injury or harm threatened."...

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