Gave Patient Drugs, Then Let Her Drive Off and Cause Fatal Accident, Family Alleges; Family Also Seeks Change in Maryland Law
The family of Carolyn DiCocco, the 64-year-old Harford County resident killed in a 2011 car accident caused by 28-year-old Nicole Ashley Albers, has filed suit in Harford County Circuit Court against the Medication Assisted Treatment Technologies (MATT) Clinic of Belcamp, for $20 million in compensatory and punitive damages.
The DiCocco family is also seeking changes in Maryland’s methadone administration laws to help prevent situations like this from happening to others.
The death of Carolyn DiCocco occurred on July 21, 2011, on Fountain Green Road (Rte. 543) just past the Fountain Green Swim Club. Albers had just received a methadone dose at the MATT Clinic, 1361 Brass Mill Road in Belcamp, Maryland. Shortly afterwards, she drove her car across the center line of Fountain Green Road and into the DiCocco family car, in which Carolyn DiCocco was a passenger.
On August 27, 2012, Albers pleaded guilty to the crime of manslaughter by motor vehicle, and on October 1, 2012, she received a 10-year prison term, with 5 years suspended.
As reported by the Harford County Aegis on September 5, 2012, and confirmed by court records, subsequent testing of Albers’ blood revealed not only the methadone she had been given by the clinic, but also the presence of a form of Xanax and of amphetamines. The combination of methadone and Xanax is widely understood to cause serious impairment to cognitive ability, rendering a subject unable to adequately perform such tasks as safely driving a car.
The lawsuit, filed by the law firm of Parker, Pallett & Slezak, P.A., on behalf of Albert DiCocco (husband of the deceased), her two sons Robert DiCocco and Mark DiCocco, and her mother Margaret Borkowski, alleges that the MATT Clinic either failed to adequately test Albers as required by law, to rule out the presence of Xanax and other drugs in her system, so that methadone could be safely administered, or ignored the results of the tests it did give her. This failure caused Albers’ impairment, which directly caused the accident in which Mrs. DiCocco was killed.
“The negligence of the MATT Clinic was a proximate cause of the death of Mrs. DiCocco,” says Karmen Slezak, an attorney on the case. “It is a classic case of the unbroken chain of liability in Tort Law,” she adds. “The MATT Clinic has a duty to operate in such as way to protect its patients and the public at large from reasonably recognized and foreseeable consequences of giving methadone to its patients. Since the interaction of Xanax and methadone are well-known and well-publicized in the medical treatment community, testing of methadone patients to insure that they are not already taking Xanax and other drugs is required by law and by the clinic’s own set procedures — this is the clinic’s duty. The clinic failed to uphold its duty, and the foreseeable result occurred: Albers drove away and within just a few minutes the combination of drugs in her system, a combination that was known or should have been known by the clinic, impaired her driving ability, ultimately resulting in a conviction for manslaughter by automobile,” Slezak reports.
Methadone is a drug widely used to control heroin addiction. The licensed clinics that administer methadone are private for-profit institutions; their expenses are paid by health insurers, who reimburse the clinics per methadone dose delivered. The patients pay nothing. Methadone itself is an addictive drug, and therefore the patients typically remain on a methadone program for years.
Xanax is a prescription drug that treats general anxiety disorder and panic disorder. When combined with methadone, it can be the equivalent of a knock-out dose.
“These clinics must be held accountable,” says Robert DiCocco, son of the deceased. “To let a person just drive away with these drugs in her system is like pushing a blind man towards a cliff — there’s no question that something terrible is going to happen, something that could be so easily avoided if only the clinic had followed its required procedures,” DiCocco adds.
The DiCocco family is so distraught because of the gross negligence of the MATT Clinic that the family is working to change Maryland law.
“The baleful effects of methadone combined with Xanax are so well known,” says Robert DiCocco, “that other municipalities, including ones in New York, New Hampshire, California and, I believe, Virginia, have passed laws requiring these private clinics to provide their patients transportation services home after the treatment. This of course adds to the clinics’ costs, but the clinics reap such huge profits from reimbursements, that they can afford it, and the community is well-served and protected much better,” DiCocco states.
The DiCocco family plans to meet with Harford County legislators to see if Maryland’s methadone administration laws can be supplemented in the same way as those of other states, to protect other families from suffering the same kind of harm and loss as the DiCocco family has endured. “It’s what our mother would have wanted,” says Robert DiCocco. “She devoted her life to helping people, beginning with her immediate family and stretching out to embrace the entire community, and this kind of added protection is exactly what we’d like her legacy to be,” he states.