By FRANK CURRERI
Until the moment when Patricia Copening crashed a Dodge Durango into a father of two and killed him, she had received prescriptions entitling her to 5,587 powerful painkilling pills over a one-year period.
Now, the dead man’s family has sued two veteran doctors who may have recommended the drugs for Copening.
Their lawsuit claims that either Dr. Richard M. Groom or Dr. Doyle Stuart Steele, or both, knew about Copening’s ongoing drug problems and still signed off on the prescriptions.
Copening is a co-defendant in the lawsuit, which was filed last week in Clark County District Court by relatives of the late Gregory Sanchez Jr. and Robert Martinez.
Martinez, who survived, and Sanchez were run over in June 2004 by the sport utility vehicle on the shoulder of U.S. Highway 95 near Flamingo Road. Sanchez had pulled over to try and fix a flat tire.
“He was 21 years old,” Stephen Lewis, a lawyer for Sanchez’ relatives, wrote in the lawsuit that alleges wrongful death and negligence. “He leaves behind a young wife, toddler and newborn baby girl.”
Following the wreck, authorities impounded the Durango and seized as evidence dozens of pills and prescription bottles marked “hydrocodone” and “carisoprodol,” according a Nevada Highway Patrol report included in the lawsuit.
Carisoprodol is the medical name for a popular muscle relaxant known as “soma.”
Steele’s name was listed on at least two of the bottles, according to the Highway Patrol.
“The record is clear. Defendant Copening was in possession of 167 pills, all given to (her) by Dr. Steele and/or Dr. Groom,” Lewis said in court papers.
Attorneys representing Groom, Steele and Copening in the civil case wouldn’t comment. Copening has a separate attorney in the criminal case.
Pharmacy records indicate Copening received prescriptions for 3,410 hydrocodone tablets in the year leading up to the crash and 2,177 soma tablets, attorney Lewis wrote in the lawsuit.
When mixed, hydrocodone and soma are known to create feelings of intense euphoria, earning them nicknames of “poor man’s heroin” and “Las Vegas cocktail” among drug addicts and drug enforcers.
Authorities say Copening was driving with a medically suspended driver’s license. They have charged her with involuntary manslaughter, driving under the influence of controlled substances and DUI death.
Copening also was charged with DUI substantial bodily injury for serious injuries sustained by Martinez. He had stopped to help Sanchez and suffered head injuries and a broken leg.
A preliminary hearing for Copening’s case is set for November, but the attorney defending her in the criminal case said his client may have been gripped by a seizure during the accident.
The attorney, James Dean Leavitt, said a motorist who witnessed the accident “observed what he believed was her (Copening) having what he believed to be a seizure.”
Leavitt also said Copening had a seizure a couple of years ago that prompted her neurologist at the time to notify the Department of Motor Vehicles that Copening was not fit to drive.
Prior to the accident, however, another physician had examined Copening and determined the driving suspension should be lifted, Leavitt said.
“Patty (Copening) didn’t realize there was a step she had to take which was actually going (to DMV) to get the license,” Leavitt said.
The crash caused professional woes for Groom and especially Steele, his former business partner.
The accident investigation mushroomed into a probe of Steele, an OB-GYN whose office is on West Charleston Boulevard. Las Vegas police, the Nevada Department of Public Safety and the DEA are involved in the investigation.
The state Board of Medical Examiners learned of the multi-agency drug investigation and allegations, which included allegations that Steele had prescribed painkillers for three patients but kept improper records for the cases.
Two weeks ago, the board suspended Steele’s medical license.
A hearing on the allegations is pending, as is another case against Steele on an allegation that he had sex with a patient, said Tony Clark, the board’s executive director.
Copening had worked for Groom at Ob-Gyn Associates for 15 years up to the day of the accident, the lawsuit alleges. The Durango involved in the crash was owned by Groom and insured through Ob-Gyn Associates, Lewis said in the lawsuit.
In responding court papers, Groom said Copening was once a patient of his whom he had treated with prescription medications for migraine headaches, child delivery and postpartum care.
But “based on my memory alone, I do not recall prescribing any hydrocodone or any other narcotic pain medication to Patricia Copening during the calendar years of 2002, 2003, 2004 or 2005,” Groom said in the documents. “I would have to have the chart to be entirely accurate.”
L.J. O’Neale, the Clark County prosecutor handling Copening’s criminal case, wouldn’t comment.
The Highway Patrol also interviewed Copening’s half-sister during the investigation. Tammy Leavitt said Copening said she took some “hydro” and “narco” the night before the collision and said she had suffered migraine headaches since she was 9.
Leavitt said the prescription drugs played no role in the accident. “Our contention is that it was a medical event,” the defense attorney said.
Keith McDonald, executive director of the state’s Board of Pharmacy, said Nevada doctors authorized more than 50 million doses of the opium-based hydrocodone last year, surpassing the per capita national average.
He said prescribing soma and hydrocodone in tandem is uncommon but not unheard of.
But for a patient to use 3,400 hydrocodone tablets in a year, McDonald said, “The person would have to have migraine headaches every day, which would be highly unusual.”