Leland Beloff, the former Philadelphia city councilman who was convicted of extortion more than two decades ago, filed a lawsuit earlier this year with his wife, Diane Beloff, making various claims against the substance-abuse rehabilitation center where she was treated.
A federal judge has decided that the couple has sufficiently pled their claims that the center, Seaside Palm Beach, is liable for the conduct of its medical employees and that Diane Beloff's alleged injuries could substantiate Leland Beloff's claim for loss of her society and companionship. However, U.S. District Judge Cynthia M. Rufe of the Eastern District of Pennsylvania held that the couple's claim for punitive damages was lacking.
"Because there is a heightened standard of proof for vicarious liability compared to individual liability, a patient must aver that the 'health care principal was cognizant of the agent's willful, wanton or recklessly indifferent treatment and allowed that conduct to proceed unabated,'" Rufe said, citing the Lackawanna County Court of Common Pleas' 2011 opinion in Lasavage v. Smith.
"Without pleading this specific element of knowledge, a claim for punitive damages fails as a matter of law," she said, leaving the door open for the Beloffs to file an amended complaint with factual allegations to support an award of punitive damages.
The couple had initially named three of Diane Beloff's treating physicians as defendants in the suit, but dismissed them in May, according to the opinion.
The Beloffs allege that while Diane Beloff was being treated at the Palm Beach, Fla.-based detox center's Pennsylvania branch in the spring of 2012 for her dependence on benzodiazepines, a class of drugs often used to treat anxiety that includes the brand-name drug Xanax, she was taken to a medical center because she felt like she was going to have a seizure.
They alleged "that various treating physicians as agents or employees acting in the course of their employment with defendant Seaside were negligent in failing to properly wean Diane Beloff off benzodiazepine, to timely diagnose and treat preliminary signs of benzodiazepine withdrawal, to supply medical records to the Palm Beach Medical Center emergency physician, and to have personnel return phone calls to Diane Beloff's new, outside physician," Rufe said.
Seaside had asked the court to dismiss the case, arguing that it was brought in an improper venue and that the Beloffs had failed to state a claim.
Rufe quickly disposed of the venue question by noting that the dismissal of the three physicians, the individual defendants, from the suit mooted the improper venue argument.
On the negligence claim, Rufe held that the Beloffs' allegations that Seaside breached its duty to follow medical standards when its doctors inappropriately weaned Diane Beloff off of Xanax, didn't diagnose or treat her early signs of withdrawal, and didn't tell her that the seizures and other symptoms she was having were a result of the withdrawal were sufficient to make a claim of negligence.
"Plaintiffs contend that the breach directly and proximately caused such symptoms as seizures, memory loss, weight loss, depression, severe chronic pain, and disc fractures and protrusion," Rufe said. "The complaint also alleges that Diane Beloff has suffered mental, physical, and financial damages as a result and that her husband Leland Beloff has suffered emotional and financial damages due to loss of consortium. These allegations are sufficient to support a negligence claim."
The judge wasn't persuaded by Seaside's argument that the Beloffs didn't identify a specific theory of liability for holding the rehab center liable for the actions of its employees.
"Seaside, as medical provider, is liable for the actions of its employees even though plaintiffs do not explicitly describe the doctors' conduct as 'professional negligence' or entitle their theory 'vicarious liability,'" Rufe said.
She applied similar reasoning for Leland Beloff's loss of consortium claim.
However, on their request for punitive damages, Rufe noted that the couple's allegation that one of the treating doctors' conduct displayed gross negligence and willful misconduct as well as malice, fraud and wantonness wouldn't translate into a claim against the clinic.
"While this language could support a claim of punitive damages for individual liability against that physician, liability cannot be imputed to Seaside because plaintiffs do not allege that Seaside knew of and allowed the conduct," Rufe said.
The Beloffs can amend their complaint to include factual allegations to show that Seaside knew about the faulty care or permitted that doctor's conduct, according to the opinion.
Neither Gustine Pelagatti, who has a practice in Philadelphia and represented the plaintiffs, nor Robert Forster of Burns White, who represented Seaside, could be reached for comment.
(Copies of the seven-page opinion in Beloff v. Seaside Palm Beach, PICS No. 13-2183, are available from The Legal Intelligencer. Please call the Pennsylvania Instant Case Service at 800-276-PICS to order or for information.) •