Georgia's top court on Monday allowed the family of a man who stabbed his mother to death in a psychotic rage to file a medical malpractice lawsuit against his psychiatrist, settling a long-running debate over whether his relatives can seek damages from a crime he committed.
The Georgia Supreme Court's unanimous ruling allows Victor Bruscato's father to sue his psychiatrist, Dr. Derek Johnson O'Brien, for discontinuing his son's anti-psychotic medication shortly before Bruscato stabbed his mother to death.
State law bans a criminal's family from profiting from the wrongdoing in court, but the lawsuit touched off a debate over whether an exception can be made if a mentally ill suspect wasn't aware of what he was doing.
Bruscato was assigned in 2001 to Dr. O'Brien's community health center in Gwinnett County, and expert witnesses testified that anti-psychotic drugs he was prescribed were helping him manage violent tendencies and sexual impulses.
That changed in May 2002 after O'Brien discontinued two of his powerful medications to make sure he wasn't developing a dangerous syndrome, according to court records. He began having nightmares and claimed the devil was ordering him to do bad deeds, records show.
The behavior turned violent in August 2002, when police say he attacked his mother Lillian Lynn Bruscato in the head with a battery charger and then stabbed her 72 times. He was charged with the murder months later, but was found incompetent to stand trial and committed to a state mental institution.
His father Vito then sued O'Brien for medical malpractice, claiming that the doctor's negligence caused his son to become psychotic and kill his mother. O'Brien countered that Bruscato's family shouldn't be allowed to shift the blame to the psychiatrist with a civil lawsuit.
A judge ruled in the psychiatrist's favor, but a divided state Court of Appeals reversed the decision and allowed the case to go to trial. A subsequent appeal put the question before the Georgia Supreme Court, which sought to end the debate with its unanimous ruling.
"It's been a long road trying to crawl back in the ballgame, but here we are. I recognize we have challenges at trial, but I look forward to trying it," said Jerry Quinn, the Bruscato family's attorney. "I'm happy with this big win, but now we have to try to convince the jury."
O'Brien's attorney didn't immediately return requests to comment on the decision, but the ruling gives his client few options aside from taking the case to trial or trying to settle out of court.
If someone knowingly commits a wrongful act the family can't use it for personal gain, Justice Harold Melton wrote, but a psychiatric disorder could prevent the person from knowingly committing the illegal act.
"There is no question that Bruscato killed his mother," the opinion said. "There is considerable question, however, regarding Bruscato's sanity and competency at the time the wrongful act was committed."
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