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The Trial of Dr. Conrad Murray–A Lesson in Recklessness and Negligence

On November 7, 2011, cardiologist Conrad Murray was found guilty of involuntary manslaughter of pop superstar Michael Jackson, who died of cardiac arrest on June 25, 2009. The trial, which lasted six weeks, ended with the jury’s decision that Dr. Murray’s conduct was reckless enough to be viewed as criminally negligent under California’s penal laws. His conviction was for involuntary manslaughter, which at least under California law, is defined as criminal negligence.  The prescribing and unorthodox administering of the powerful anesthetic propofol was the major factor in proving Dr. Murray’s guilt.

California Penal Code 192(b) recognizes involuntary manslaughter as “the commission of an unlawful act, not amounting to felony; or… the commission of a lawful act which might produce death, in an unlawful manner, or without due caution and circumspection.” The prosecutors in this case had to prove that even though the doctor did not intend to kill Jackson with propofol, Murray’s utter disregard for his patient amounted to recklessness.

In a civil case, negligence is a common law tort in which a person is injured due to another person’s carelessness. Criminal negligence as it is defined by California law, occurs when a person (such as a doctor) acts in blatant disregard of the harm which might befall another person (such as a patient), ie: recklessness.

If Jackson’ family decides to sue the doctor in negligence, they would be able to use the evidence already presented in the criminal case. If and when Jackson’s estate brings a negligence case, here is what must be proven:

Duty

In a civil negligence case, it is necessary to prove that the defendant (Conrad Murray) owed a duty to the plaintiff (the late Michael Jackson). Due to the doctor-patient nature of their relationship, it is undeniable that Dr. Murray owed a duty to Jackson and that that duty required Murray to act in a manner befitting his profession.

Breach of Duty/Breach of Standard of Care

After establishing that Dr. Murray owed a duty to his patient, it is then necessary to prove that he breached that duty. Prosecutors had presented a list of ways in which the defendant failed to fulfill his duty to the plaintiff. Prescribing 4 gallons of propofol, and allowing the drug to be administered within Jackson’s home was an unorthodox practice which has been recognized as the doctor’s major breach of duty, and outside of the standard of care: ie what a reasonable doctor would have done under the circumstances.

Causation

After proving breach of duty, prosecutors must argue that the defendant’s negligence directly caused harm to the plaintiff. Combined with other drugs, the propofol prescribed to Jackson caused the singer to go into cardiac arrest. In the criminal case, prosecutors argued that Dr. Murray failed to perform all of the necessary steps of cardiopulmonary resuscitation (CPR); specifically, he performed CPR on Jackson’s bed rather than on a flat surface. These details further prove breach of duty, as well as served to implicate Dr. Murray in causing Jackson’s death.

Damages

Damages in a negligence case amount to the injury or other measurable loss inflicted upon the plaintiff. The damages here were, obviously, the singer’s death. But also, there is an element of pain and suffering which is called survival damages, and Jackson’s loss of earnings over his expected lifetime, which falls under the category of wrongful death damages.

Duty, standard of care/breach, causation and damages are the elements which need to be proven by any plaintiff/estate in a death case, whether in Pennsylvania or in California.

Dr. Murray is due to be sentenced on November 29th, 2011. He could serve up to 4 years in prison for involuntary manslaughter.

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