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Healthcare Business & Technology
by Carol Katarsky
February 16, 2010
Discharged patient commits murder-suicide — were her docs to blame? Can doctors be held responsible for the actions of a mentally ill patient they treated four months earlier? A new court case aims to find out.
A family is suing McLean Hospital in Belmont, Massachusetts, as well as two of its psychiatrists and a staff social worker, for providing improper care to Marcelle Thibault and for the wrongful death of Thibault and her young niece and nephew. The suit is being brought by Ken and Danielle Lambert, the parents of the two children. Thibault was Danielle Lambert’s twin sister.
In September 2007, Thibault was diagnosed and treated at McLean Hospital for bipolar disorder. She was hospitalized for six days, then released with a recommendation to continue with outpatient therapy and psychotropic prescriptions.
According to the Lamberts, Thibault appeared to improve over the next few months, and they had no reason to be concerned that she posed a risk to herself or other people. So on Jan. 11, 2008, they didn’t hesitate to let Thibault take the children, five-year-old Kaleigh and four-year-old Shane, for a sleep-over at her home.
Driving home with the children, Thibault crossed the median of a major highway, stopped her car facing the wrong way and stripped off her own clothes and and the childrens’. According to eyewitnesses, she then grabbed the kids and ran into oncoming traffic, screaming about religion. All three were killed.
Tragic — but was it preventable?
At first glance, it seems like a tragic, unforeseeable event. But the Lamberts later learned of information that they say would have prevented their childrens’ death — and Thibault’s — had it been shared with the family.
The night of her death, Thibault had stopped her car on the way to pick up the children and assaulted a passerby who stopped to assist her. At the time, she informed a state trooper who arrived on the scene that she was “debating good and evil.”
Thibault calmed down quickly and the other motorist declined to press charges. Lacking information on Thibault’s medical history, the trooper declined to hold her for a psychiatric evaluation and sent her on her way with a warning. Thibault didn’t tell the Lamberts about the altercation when she arrived at their home.
The family’s attorney said they considered filing suit against the police for not holding Thibault after the traffic stop, but felt the case against the trooper would be too hard to prove. But they did move forward with a suit against the doctors at McLean, claiming they should have informed Thibault’s family that she could be a risk to herself or others.
McLean Hospital didn’t comment on the case, but it’s worth pointing out that the clinicians treating Thibault had a difficult balancing act to perform.
Disclosing too much information about her mental state to her extended family could easily be seen as a breach of patient confidentiality. And that assumes that her doctors could predict such a violent outburst. If Thibault’s own family could see nothing wrong in her demeanor just prior to her death, could the doctors be expected to do so months in advance of the actual incident?
What’s your take on the case: Was it preventable or just a tragic incident no one could foresee? Share your thoughts in the comments.
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As the doctor gently shut the hospital room door, Danielle Lambert knew that the news was bad. She and her husband, Ken, collapsed into each other’s arms and wept. “There were no words. We knew our kids weren’t coming home,” she says. “Their injuries were just too severe. All we could do was hold each and other and cry.”
Just hours earlier, on a frigid January evening in 2008, Danielle had hugged her two children, Kaleigh, 5, and Shane, 4, goodbye. She waved cheerfully as her twin sister, Marci Thibault, drove them away for what was supposed to be a fun American Girl-themed slumber party weekend at her home in Bellingham, Massachusetts.
After a quiet dinner that night with Ken, Danielle had gone to bed early and was startled when the phone rang just after 10 p.m. Marci’s 16-year-old niece, Arielle, one of several cousins who were supposed to be attending the party, was on the line.
Danielle, who works as a nurse practioner, and Ken, a construction manager, bolted out of bed to put on their shoes and get dressed. Her hands shaking, Danielle dialed the emergency room at Lawrence General Hospital in Lawrence, Massachusetts. “How are my kids?” she asked a night-duty nurse. She could barely get the words out, she felt so frantic. “Please, tell me, how is their condition? Are they stable?”
The nurse hesitated, then gently said, “I’m afraid their condition is poor.” Danielle pressed for more details, but none were offered. “Get here as soon as you can,” the nurse said.
Panicked and in tears, the Lamberts rushed out the door and drove 23 miles from their home in Brentwood, New Hampshire, to the town of Lawrence. Inside the hospital, a doctor promptly led them to a private room and gave them the horrific news.
The Lamberts learned that Marci, 40, a married mom with two teenagers, had unexplainably crossed the median on Interstate 495 in Lowell, Massachusetts. After stopping her car in the wrong direction, she then undressed herself, Kaleigh, and Shane and walked the children into oncoming traffic. All three of them were killed when two cars hit them head-on.
Although she had suffered from depression and bipolar disorder in recent years, “we thought Marci was taking medication and everything was under control,” says Danielle. “She seemed perfectly normal when she picked up the kids at our house that night. But somewhere on the way to her house for the party, she suffered a psychotic breakdown.”
She seemed perfectly normal when she picked up the kids.
After Kaleigh and Shane’s funeral, the Lamberts were shocked to discover that Marci had received a citation from a state trooper for failing to stay within striped lines while on the way to their home that evening. “She had stopped in the highway median, and when a good Samaritan tried to help her, she hit him and kept calling him ‘Harry,'” recalls Danielle. “Then she sat down in a puddle of water and started splashing around.”