MARIETTA — After a mentally ill Georgia man was charged with stabbing his mother to death amid a psychotic rage, his father took a peculiar step that has so far divided Georgia courts: He filed a medical malpractice lawsuit seeking damages from his son's psychiatrist.
The question of whether a suspected criminal's family can profit from wrongdoing was at the center of this bizarre case, which landed Monday before the Georgia Supreme Court. Judges have been grappling with this prickly issue for years, but lawyers involved said few other cases cut to the heart of the debate like this one.
Victor Bruscato was assigned in 2001 to Dr. Derek Johnson O'Brien's community health center in Gwinnett County, and expert witnesses testified that anti-psychotic drugs had been helping him manage violent tendencies and sexual impulses.
But that changed in May 2002 after O'Brien ordered that two of his powerful medications be discontinued to rule out the possibility that he was developing a dangerous syndrome, according to court records. He began having nightmares and claimed the devil was giving him direct orders to do bad deeds, records show.
The behavior turned violent in August 2002, when police say he smashed 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 bring the lawsuit because of longstanding restrictions barring families involved in potential crimes from profiting from wrongful or illegal conduct.
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. The state's top court on Monday wrestled with the same issues on Monday, asking pointed questions to attorneys from both sides.
Bruscato attorney William Quinn III said "fundamental fairness" requires the court to allow his client's case to go forward. If the psychiatrist's negligence caused Bruscato to become psychotic and kill his mother,Quinn argued, then he should be entitled to damages.
O'Brien attorney Milton Satcher countered that Bruscato should not be able to shift the blame for killing his mother to his psychiatrist by seeking to recover damages in a civil lawsuit.
Public policy and case law dating back 150 years, he said, makes it clear that "a person should not be able to sue for recovery of such a wrongful and immoral act."