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Doctor not liable in fatal crash caused by dementia patient, jury finds

By Alan Zarembo, Los Angeles Times –

LOS ANGELES — A doctor who deemed his 85-year-old dementia patient fit to drive bears no responsibility for her fatal car accident in 2010, an Orange County jury found Thursday.

With 90-year-old William Powers, her longtime partner, in the front passenger seat, Lorraine Sullivan turned their Toyota into the path of a fast-approaching Mercedes. Sullivan survived the crash, but Powers died of his injuries six weeks later.

His family sued her doctor, Arthur Daigneault, for wrongful death, arguing that the physician should have deemed Sullivan a danger on the road and acted to have her license revoked.

The jury, which deliberated for about 30 minutes, found that Daigneault did not violate the standard of care or state law by not reporting her to authorities.

California is among several states that require doctors to report drivers with medical conditions that could make them a hazard on the road. But the law also lets doctors use their clinical judgment.

Advanced cases of Alzheimer’s are clearly cause for reporting, but patients in the early stages of dementia may still be capable of driving.

Daigneault argued that Sullivan was such a patient. She was taking medications for memory loss, but her condition was mild enough that she could hide it from her family.

“The purpose of the statute is not to get forgetful people off the road,” Daigneault’s attorney, Michael Trotter, said after the jury reached its decision.

The victim’s son, Craig Powers, a plaintiff in the case, said he was disappointed by the decision but pleased to bring attention to the issue. The number of older drivers is rapidly increasing, and taking away their keys can be a wrenching decision for families.

Powers also said that he would work to change the reporting law to give doctors less leeway: “Why not err on the side of safety?”

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