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George Infante, the Executor of the Estate of Rosemary Infante v. Caroline R. Dignan

March 21, 2011

GEORGE INFANTE, THE EXECUTOR OF THE ESTATE OF ROSEMARY INFANTE, PLAINTIFF,
v.
CAROLINE R. DIGNAN, MEDICAL EXAMINER FOR MONROE COUNTY, NEW YORK, AND PAUL D. GOSINK, DEPUTY MEDICAL EXAMINER FOR MONROE COUNTY, NEW YORK, DEFENDANTS.



The opinion of the court was delivered by: Charles J. Siragusa United States District Judge

DECISION AND ORDER

INTRODUCTION

This is an action pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 1983 ("Section 1983"), in which Plaintiff maintains that Defendants violated the federal constitutional rights of Rosemary Infante, ("Ms. Infante") deceased, when they classified her death as a suicide. Now before the Court is Defendants' motion (Docket No. [#13]) to dismiss. For the reasons that follow, the application is granted and this action is dismissed.

BACKGROUND

Unless otherwise noted, the following facts are taken from Plaintiff's Amended Complaint ("the Complaint") in this action. On April 16, 2006, Ms. Infante died of an overdose of prescription anti-depressant medication. Early on the morning of that day, one of Ms. Infante's daughters found her collapsed on the floor of her bedroom. Ms. Infante told her daughter, "I'll be up soon and we will have a regular day." However, Ms. Infante remained on the floor and died a short time later. In the days preceding her death, Ms. Infante was "ecstatic" over being reunited with her two adopted daughters, ages ten and five. Ms. Infante was also looking forward to traveling out of town the following week to visit her parents, and had recently had her car serviced in preparation for that trip. Ms. Infante also had plans to visit a friend later on the day that she died, which was Easter Sunday. Ms. Infante gave no indication that she was suicidal, and she left no suicide note. Additionally, Ms. Infante's psychiatrist indicates that she was not suicidal. Amended Complaint ¶ 80.

Ms. Infante had "many health issues and was forced to manage a total of 14 different prescription medications." Amended Complaint ¶ 12. Ms. Infante "at times had difficulty administering the precise dosage of each drug at the precise time," and she had previously accidentally overdosed on pain medication. Id. at ¶ ¶ 13, 16-17. Days prior to her death, medical testing indicated that Ms. Infante's "blood coagulation levels" were "severely unbalanced," which can "cause weakness and confusion." Id. at ¶ ¶ 18-20.

The Office of the Monroe County Medical Examiner investigated Ms. Infante's death and performed an autopsy. In connection with such investigation, Defendants did not collect Ms. Infante's prescription medication bottles from her home. Defendants' autopsy report contained certain inaccuracies concerning Ms. Infante's height and the condition of her teeth. Id. at ¶ ¶ 47-48. In investigating the cause of Ms. Infante's death, Defendants did not analyze "the potential interactions of the prescription drugs present in [her] system. Id. at ¶ 50. During Defendants' investigation, Ms. Infante's father, plaintiff George Infante ("Plaintiff"), a retired Albany County Sheriff and New York State Police Investigator, provided Defendants with information concerning Ms. Infante's medical conditions and medications. Plaintiff also provided Defendants with "contact information" for Ms. Infante's doctors. Nevertheless, Defendants did not utilize such information. On August 8, 2006, Defendants concluded that Ms. Infante's death was a suicide, caused by "multiple drug intoxication." Infante v. Dignan, 12 N.Y.3d 336, 339, 879 N.Y.S.2d 824, 825 (2009).

Plaintiff subsequently commenced an action in New York State Supreme Court, Monroe County, pursuant to New York Civil Practice Law and Rules ("CPLR") Article 78, seeking a determination that Defendants' classification of Ms. Infante's death as a suicide was arbitrary and capricious. Supreme Court dismissed the action, finding that "there was sufficient information on the record for a reasonable person to make a finding of suicide." Infante v. Dignan, 12 N.Y.3d at 339, 879 N.Y.S.2d at 826. New York State Supreme Court, Appellate Division Fourth Department, reversed the dismissal, finding that the evidence was insufficient "to rebut the [common law] presumption against suicide, and thus was arbitrary and capricious." Id., 12 N.Y.3d at 339-340, 879 N.Y.S.2d at 826 (citation and internal quotation marks omitted). In that regard, the Appellate Division stated:

Supreme Court erred in dismissing the petition and, instead, should have granted it inasmuch as the evidence before respondents was insufficient to rebut the presumption against suicide. It is well established that "[t]he presumption [against suicide] springs from strong policy considerations [and also] embod[ies] natural probability" (Schelberger v. Eastern Sav. Bank, 60 N.Y.2d 506, 510, 470 N.Y.S.2d 548, 458 N.E.2d 1225; see generally Green v. William Penn Life Ins. Co. of N.Y., 48 A.D.3d 37, 39, 848 N.Y.S.2d 109). Indeed, it is "one of the strongest presumptions in the law" (Schelberger v. Eastern Sav. Bank, 93 A.D.2d 188, 190, 461 N.Y.S.2d 785, affd. 60 N.Y.2d 506, 470 N.Y.S.2d 548, 458 N.E.2d 1225), and it "constitutes a statement of public policy of broad application rather than prescribing a means for resolving the competing claims to justice in an individual case" (Schelberger, 60 N.Y.2d at 510, 470 N.Y.S.2d 548, 458 N.E.2d 1225). "The presumption arises in recognition of the fact that self-destruction 'is contrary to the general conduct of [hu]mankind' " (Schelberger, 93 A.D.2d at 192, 461 N.Y.S.2d 785, quoting Mallory v. Travelers' Ins. Co., 47 N.Y. 52, 54-55), and "of the truth drawn from general human experience, that death by suicide is an improbability [and] that most [individuals] cling to life" (Wellisch v. John Hancock Mut. Life Ins. Co., 293 N.Y. 178, 184, 56 N.E.2d 540).

Although the presumption against suicide has most commonly been applied in the context of an action to recover the proceeds of a life insurance policy (see e.g. Schelberger, 60 N.Y.2d 506, 508, 470 N.Y.S.2d 548, 458 N.E.2d 1225; Begley v. Prudential Ins. Co. of Am., 1 N.Y.2d 530, 532, 154 N.Y.S.2d 866, 136 N.E.2d 839; Wellisch, 293 N.Y. 178, 180, 56 N.E.2d 540), we nevertheless conclude that it should be applied equally in the context of this proceeding seeking review of a medical examiner's determination, particularly in view of the statement of the Court of Appeals that the presumption is to be broadly applied (see Schelberger, 60 N.Y.2d at 510, 470 N.Y.S.2d 548, 458 N.E.2d 1225). To conclude otherwise would be to fail to recognize "the underlying nature and strength of the presumption" ( Schelberger, 93 A.D.2d at 189, 461 N.Y.S.2d 785), and to ignore the above-quoted language of the Court of Appeals in Schelberger and Wellisch. Infante v. Dignan, 55 A.D.3d 1258, 1259, 865 N.Y.S.2d 167, 168 (4th Dept. 2008). However, the New York Court of Appeals reversed, stating, in pertinent part:

New York's common-law presumption against suicide has no role to play in a medical examiner's determination of the cause or manner of a decedent's death, or the judicial review of such a determination (see e.g. Public Health Law § 4143[3] [directing medical examiner to certify whether a death from external causes was " probably accidental, suicidal or homicidal" (emphasis added)]). The presumption is an evidentiary rule relevant to resolving disputes over life insurance proceeds ( see Green v. William Penn Life Ins. Co. of N.Y., 12 N.Y.3d 342 [2009] [decided today] ). We have never considered the presumption in any other context.

As a statutory matter, the County Law requires a medical examiner to "determine the means or manner of death" (County Law § 674[3][a]; § 671) for the benefit of the public at large rather than for the benefit of individuals, including a decedent's family members ( see e.g. Lauer v. City of New York, 95 N.Y.2d 95, 711 N.Y.S.2d 112, 733 N.E.2d 184 [2000] [New York City medical examiner did not owe duty of care to father of child whose death was wrongly attributed to homicide] ). If medical examiners were forced to leaven their decision-making with a common-law evidentiary presumption, the medical and scientific quality of their work would be seriously compromised to the detriment of the citizenry.

Infante v. Dignan, 12 N.Y.3d at 340, 879 N.Y.S.2d at 826 - 827. The Court of Appeals further found that the Medical Examiner's determination, that Ms. Infante committed suicide, was not arbitrary, and had a "reasonable basis." Id., 12 N.Y.3d at 341, 879 N.Y.S.2d at 827. On this point, the Court of Appeals stated:

The results of [the drug screen] analysis, which were reported by an experienced forensic toxicologist, disclosed an extremely high heart blood concentration of the drug fluoxetine (commercially known as Prozac)-a level 18 to 20 times higher than would be expected with normal therapeutic usage. In addition, the level of a fluoxetine metabolite in decedent's liver was comparatively high in relation to the parent drug's level in her heart blood. The medical examiner characterized these autopsy and toxicological findings as "most significant" in leading him to conclude that decedent's manner of death was ...


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