New Mexico Overdose Case Headed Back to State Court

A lawsuit filed over the overdose death of a New Mexico man who died after refusing aid against medical advice has been remanded back to state court where the case began. The facts of the case raise important questions about refusals against medical advice and capacity of consent or decline aid. However, the ruling is nothing short of tortuous to read, through no fault of the judge who wrote it.

The case involves the death of David Prince, Jr., on July 11, 2017. Prince’s wife, Christina, called 911 the evening before because he took twenty-eight Hydrocodone pills. Police and fire/EMS personnel from the City of Deming responded. According to the decision:

  • D. Prince told the police officers that he was “fine.”
  • C. Prince alleges that her husband had attempted suicide in the past but that her husband denied to the police officers that he had thoughts of harming himself.
  • C. Prince alleges that “EMS staff did not assess or take any vital signs for Mr. Prince,” and that EMS personnel allowed D. Prince to sign a refusal of treatment form “despite the fact that they knew or should have known he was not of sound mind to sign any forms or refuse any treatment.”
  • According to C. Prince, the “Deming Police and EMS Defendants determined that David would have been showing signs of overdose if he took 28 Hydrocodone 30 minutes .”
  • In the Counterclaim and Third-Party Complaint, the Defendants allege that D. Prince declined a medical evaluation, medical treatment, or transport to the hospital, so they asked him to sign a release agreement.
  • The release agreement states:
    • Because it is sometimes impossible to recognize actual or potential medical problems outside the hospital, we strongly encourage you to be evaluated, treated if necessary, and transported to a hospital by EMS personnel for more complete examination by a physician.
    • You have the right to choose not to be evaluated, treated or transported; however, there is the possibility that you could suffer serious complications or even death from conditions that are not apparent at this time.
    • By signing below, you are acknowledging that EMS personnel have advised you, and that you understand, the potential harm to your health that may result from your refusal of the recommended care; and, you release EMS and supporting personnel from liability resulting from refusal.
  • C. Prince alleges that, a few hours after EMS personnel left the residence, around 4:27 a.m. on July 11, 2017, she awoke and found D. Prince “unresponsive, not breathing and cold to the touch,” so she again called 911.
  • C. Prince alleges that, when the police officers and EMS personnel responded, D. Prince’s medical assessment “showed Asystole with obvious signs of death.”
  • C. Prince alleges that D. Prince was pronounced dead at 6:10 a.m., and that an “autopsy showed that Mr. Prince died from the toxic effects of Hydrocodone, and that the manner of death was suicide.”
  • C. Prince alleges that, had the Deming police officers and EMS personnel “conducted a proper medical evaluation when they saw Mr. Prince on July 10, 2017, they could have prevented his death.”

Christina Prince filed suit in New Mexico’s Sixth Judicial District Court for Luna County against the City of Deming, several police officers, Fire Chief Raul Mercado, and several fire/ems members alleging medical negligence; negligent hiring, training, supervision, and retention; and a claim for “violat[ing] Federal and State law including but not limited to the Constitution.”

The city removed the case to federal court because the complaint contained allegations of a violation of federal law. Christina’s attorney sought to amend the complaint to remove the federal issues, and keep the case in state court. That is about all firefighters need to know about the decision, aside from the fact that Judge James O. Browning ordered the case returned to New Mexico’s Sixth Judicial District Court for Luna County.

Beyond that the ruling is positively painful to read. It appears the attorneys in the case squabbled about every conceivable procedural issue they could possibly find to argue about, including asking the judge to sanction each other. Judge Browning dutifully dealt with each issue, and my hat is off to him for his patience.

For the firefighters, the merits of the case raise some interesting questions about refusals against medical advice where the patient has allegedly taken medication capable of impairing judgment, and/or when family members report him to be suicidal. Hopefully at some point the actual merits of the allegations and the facts will be considered.

Here is a copy of the decision:

About Curt Varone

Curt Varone has over 45 years of fire service experience and 35 as a practicing attorney licensed in both Rhode Island and Maine. His background includes 29 years as a career firefighter in Providence (retiring as a Deputy Assistant Chief), as well as volunteer and paid on call experience. He is the author of two books: Legal Considerations for Fire and Emergency Services, (2006, 2nd ed. 2011, 3rd ed. 2014, 4th ed. 2022) and Fire Officer's Legal Handbook (2007), and is a contributing editor for Firehouse Magazine writing the Fire Law column.

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