Four families who have seen loved ones die from drug overdoses are suing a Manitowoc doctor who has been charged with drug trafficking.
The families are using a state racketeering law not usually invoked in medical-malpractice lawsuits.
Dr. Charles Szyman had been under investigation by the federal government for years. His long-time employer, Holy Family Hospital, fired him last year. His medical license was suspended in May. In June, a federal grand jury indicted Szyman on 19 charges of drug trafficking.
The families filed a medical malpractice suit on Oct. 4 not only alleging that the patients were negligently prescribed drugs such as oxycodone and percocet but also seeking additional damages under the state’s racketeering statute, the Wisconsin Organized Crime Control Act. The act is the state’s counterpart to the federal racketeering statute, the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act.
Lawyers representing the families, Phillip Georges, Timothy Knurr and Steven Gruber of Gruber Law Offices, declined to comment. Szyman’s attorneys could not immediately be reached Monday.
In addition to alleging negligence, the complaint says Szyman, Holy Family Hospital, and Holy Family Pharmacy and its pharmacists conspired over 10 years to get patients addicted to prescription drugs and made millions from addicts.
The statute is typically used to prosecute organized crime, but its civil damages provision has also been invoked in civil business disputes and disputes involving insurance companies.
Peter Carstensen, a professor at the University of Wisconsin Law School, says he does not know of a medical-malpractice suit that successfully used Wisconsin Organized Crime Control Act as a theory of recovery. However, the tactic is not coming as a complete surprise, given the facts of the case, he said.
If the attorneys are successful with their claim, the families would get double damages and reasonable attorneys’ fees.
“It also allows the lawyers for the plaintiffs to tie the various defendants together, which may be important to ensure recovery,” said Carstensen. “The more intentional the wrongdoing, the less insurance coverage there would be. Hence, the RICO count ensures that the defendants who are solvent will have to pay up.”Follow @erikastrebel