Wednesday, February 24, 2016
Court of Appeal Rules for Doctors in Wrongful Death Case
Defendants, Who Treated Abuse Victim Months Earlier, Not Liable for Lack of Report
By KENNETH OFGANG, Staff Writer
Two doctors who treated a woman who was murdered two months later, allegedly by her husband, cannot be held liable for her death, the Sixth District Court of Appeal ruled yesterday.
The justices agreed that Deane Crow and Don T. Williams were entitled to summary judgment in the action brought by Pam Pipitone. Pipitone’s daughter, Ryann Bunnell, was killed in 2010, six months after her marriage to Deane Crow’s son, Jesse Crow.
She was dismembered and the body parts dumped into San Francisco Bay.
Police charged Jesse Crow with murder for financial gain. He hanged himself in the Monterey County Jail in August 2010.
Strangled and Shot
Prosecutors said Crow strangled his wife with a dog leash, then shot her and smashed her in the head with a hammer, after she suspected him of being involved with another woman and threatened to report his indoor marijuana-growing operation. The other woman and Crow’s alleged partners in the operation helped him dispose of the body and were set to testify against him in exchange for immunity, prosecutors said.
Pipitone contended that Deane Crow and Williams, a friend of his, breached their statutory duty to inform authorities of what they reasonably should have suspected to be Jesse Crow’s abuse of his wife in October 2009. The incident that allegedly triggered the duty to report was Crow deliberately running his truck over his wife’s foot, while both of them were drunk.
Deane Crow—who had retired from practice and was reportedly running a medical marijuana collective—said his son called him after the incident and asked him to come to the house because his wife was injured. Bunnell said she had been run over by a truck, but did not tell him how it occurred, he testified.
He referred her to Williams, an orthopedic surgeon. Bunnell told him a truck had run over her foot but that she did not know who was driving and could not identify the vehicle.
No Reasonable Suspicion
The defense argued that the doctors had no duty to make reports of abuse because they could not reasonably have suspected that Bunnell was covering up for her husband. They also contended that even if a duty to report existed, there was no liability because the breach of any such duty was not a legal cause of the subsequent murder.
Monterey Superior Court Judge Thomas W. Willis sided with the defendants, as did the Court of Appeal.
Presiding Justice Conrad Rushing rejected the argument that Crow, being aware of the nature of the injury and of his son’s history of fights and arrests, should have deduced that he was the one who injured his wife and that he did so deliberately.
“Dr. Crow’s fractured awareness of past problems on the part of his son, taken in conjunction with his knowledge that his son was driving the truck when it ran over Ryann’s foot, that both Jesse and Ryann had been drinking at the time, and that her injuries were consistent with the stated mechanism of injury, do not create a reasonable suspicion of abuse any more than they might create a reasonable suspicion of reckless behavior on the part of the recently married couple,” the presiding justice wrote.
As for Williams, Rushing said, the plaintiff failed to rebut his prima facie showing that her injuries were consistent with her statements to him, which did not implicate her husband.
No Issue of Causation
Rushing went on to say that the plaintiff failed to show a triable issue of causation. A reasonable trier of fact could not conclude that if the doctors reported the incident as one of suspected abuse, the victim would not have been murdered, the jurist said.
He noted that subsequent to the incident, Pipitone, as well as Bunnell’s sister, told police that Crow had deliberately run his truck over Bunnell’s foot and otherwise abused her, and that the couple had agreed to cover up the truck incident in exchange for the husband paying some of the medical bills, and that there was a police investigation that did not result in charges.
A medical expert’s declaration opining that the murder would likely not have occurred had the incident been reported as abuse did not create a triable issue of fact, Rushing said, because the doctor’s “profound” conclusions were unsupported by anything other than speculation and conjecture.
The case is Pipitone v. Williams, 16 S.O.S. 1044.
Copyright 2016, Metropolitan News Company