Court of Appeals Affirms Life Sentences for Pain Management Physician (and Creates Circuit Split)

September 20, 2011 by Carl Lietz

In a federal white collar criminal case originating out of the Northern District of Florida (Pensacola Division), the Eleventh Circuit recently affirmed life sentences for a pain management physician convicted of various federal offenses. Among other things, the federal indictment against Dr. David Webb alleged that he unlawfully dispensed controlled substances in violation of federal law (21 U.S.C. § 841), and engaged in health care fraud in violation of § 1347 by issuing prescriptions that were not medically necessary. In connection with both the unlawful dispensing charge, as well as the health care fraud charge, the indictment alleged that Dr. Webb's prescriptions resulted in the death of three of his patients.

At trial, both the Government and Dr. Webb presented expert testimony concerning the legitimacy of the controlled substance prescriptions at issue. According to the Government's expert, Dr. Webb: (1) gave inadequate initial evaluations, including failing to obtain prior medical records and sub-standard physical exams; and (2) failed to refer patients to specialists to help manage their pain. In addition, the Government's expert also testified that Dr. Webb also ignored signs of drug dependency in his patients and continued to prescribe drugs even when patients were “out of control with their self-taking of the medicine.” Accordingly, based on these and other factors, the Government's expert opined that Dr. Webb’s prescribing practices were “dangerous, absolutely incredible,” and “clearly inconsistent with the usual course of medical practice and for other than legitimate medical purposes.” At the conclusion of the trial, the jury returned guilty verdicts on all counts but one.

On appeal, Dr. Webb raised a number of arguments, seeking to vacate his three life sentences on the resulting in death counts, as well as the other counts for which he stood convicted. Most notably, Dr. Webb argued that the trial court erred in the instructions that it provided to the jury on the three death related counts.

In essence, Dr. Webb argued that the district court should have provided an instruction that would have required the jury to find that Dr. Webb's conduct proximately caused the deaths or, at a minimum, that the deaths were reasonably forseeable to Dr. Webb. The Eleventh Circuit, however, disagreed.

With respect to the § 841 charges, the court held that § 841's enhanced penalty requires only proof that the death resulted from the victim’s use of a controlled substance dispensed by the defendant. Likewise, with respect to the death charge pertaining to the health care fraud count, the Eleventh Circuit reached a similar conclusion; according to the Eleventh Circuit, the results in death language in each statute requires nothing more than a causal connection factually. In other words, under both statutes, the Government is not required to prove proximate cause or reasonable forseeability.

Although it may not help Dr. Webb, at least one judge on the three judge panel disagreed with the court's decision concerning the resulting in death language in the federal health care fraud statute. As the dissenting judge recognized, the majority's decision on this issue directly conflicts with the Sixth Circuit's decision in United States v. Martinez. According to the Sixth Circuit, "proximate cause is the appropriate standard to apply in determining whether a health care fraud violation ‘results in death.’"

In a previous post, we have discussed how federal prosecutors in the Atlanta area are ramping up investigations and prosecutions involving physicians that practice in the area of pain management. And as lawyers that have handled federal cases involving similar allegations before, we were disappointed by the Eleventh Circuit's decision to reject the Sixth Circuit's analysis in Martinez. Because of the conflicting decisions between the Sixth and Eleventh Circuits that we now have on the issue, however, we are hoping that the Supreme Court takes Dr. Webb's case (or a similar one) to resolve this Circuit conflict.

The Eleventh Circuit's opinion in Webb can be found here.