More than 1.5 million patients suffer the serious outcome of medical malpractice in the United States annually. Approximately 200,000 individuals are injured so severely that they die from medical negligence each year. So, it is not surprising that famous people and celebrities face the same potential risk of being injured or dying because a medical professional made a mistake.
In some cases, the accident is the result of the doctor’s failure to review the patient’s medical record before making a diagnosis, providing treatment or performing surgeries. Other times, the doctor prescribed medications at too high of a dosage, or the wrong medication, or a drug that was never needed. The information below details the most famous medical errors that cost and celebrities their lives.
Anna Nicole Smith
Born: November 28, 1967 (Houston Texas) Died: February 8, 2007 (Hollywood, Florida)
In February 2007, Anna Nicole was found dead at the Seminole Hard Rock Hotel and Casino in Hollywood, Florida while in her room. An emergency nurse who was also a friend of Nicole performed cardiopulmonary resuscitation (CPR) along with Nicole’s bodyguard and husband. Emergency Medical Technicians transported Smith to the Hollywood Memorial Regional Hospital where doctors pronounced dead at 2:49 PM. The Broward County Medical Examiner’s Office, forensic pathologists, and law enforcement conducted an extensive investigation and determine that Anna Nicole died as a result of “combined drug intoxication” that involved chloral hydrate, a sleeping drug. However, toxicology reports indicated that there were no illegal drugs in Nicole’s body at the time of her death and the coroner nor did not consider her death to be the result of natural causes, suicide or homicide.
Eventually, the coroner ruled Smith’s death as an accidental acute combined drug toxicity with a combination of prescribed benzodiazepines including Valium (diazepam), Serax (oxazepam), Ativan (Lorazepam), Klonopin (diazepam). The toxicology report revealed that Nicole had also taken a Kaimate antagonist and anticonvulsant medication which likely produce a sedative sensation. The autopsy report revealed that Nicole had also taken human growth hormone and cyanocobalamin (a form of vitamin B12) in the days before she died. Of the eleven drugs found in Nicole’s body at the time of her death eight of them, including the sleeping medication, were not prescribed to Anna Nicole Smith, but to Howard Turner, Nicole’s long-time personal lawyer. Two other medications were prescribed to Alex Katz and Doctor Khristina Elaine Eroshevich, her friend and psychiatrist. The forensic pathologist working on her case acknowledge that Eroshevich had written each one of the eleven prescriptions.
CBS News reported that over 600 pills including approximately 450 muscle relaxants in the hotel room were never found in the prescription bottles that were less than five weeks old. Eroshevich was fined $100 and a year of probation in the Los Angeles County Superior Courtroom.
Born: June 7, 1958 (Minneapolis, Minnesota) Died: April 21, 2016 (Chanhassen, Minnesota)
American singer, songwriter, record producer, filmmaker a musician Prince Rogers Nelson died of an accidental synthetic opioid overdose in April 2016 at his Paisley Park home in Chanhassen, Minnesota. The results found on the toxicology report as a part of the autopsy identified an exceedingly high amount of fentanyl in Prince’s system. A blood test confirmed that synthetic opioid was found in the stomach, liver and blood which likely killed him. Prince had taken numerous medications including fentanyl to treat chronic pain. However, the medication is considered to be “50 times more powerful than heroin” and at the level found in his bloodstream was absolutely deadly. While the tests revealed fentanyl levels at 67.8 µg per leader in Prince’s bloodstream, the amount found in his liver contains more than 450 µg per kilogram at a level that is considered “fatal toxicity.”
Some doctors believe that Prince had developed a tolerance to the medication because he had been taking it for so long which likely led to the overdose that caused his death. Investigators have yet to identify the source of the illegal medications while prosecutors decide to press charges against certain individuals who might be at fault for supplying him the deadly drug. A report released by the Star Tribune revealed that investigators are researching how painkillers might have been involved in the hospital emergency room visit that occurred one week before Prince’s death. Additional news reports, including one from the Associated Press, stated that investigators were looking to see if doctors were aboard the plane when the singer was found unconscious as the plane landed. Prince was given a shot of Narcan, a medication that offsets opioid overdoses. However, news reports at the time claim that Prince was fighting the flu or suffering dehydration, which was the reason he needed to go to the emergency room.
Duane and Lorna Nelson, Prince’s siblings were claiming that Prince had used cocaine and Percocet for years which caused substantial problems. Because he died without a will, Prince’s family and the court needs to figure out what to do with his estate that is worth millions of dollars.
Born: January 8, 1925 (Tupelo Mississippi) Died: August 16, 1977 (Graceland, Memphis, Tennessee)
Even though Elvis Presley was leaving his home on the night of August 16, 1977, his new girlfriend, Ginger Alden found him unresponsive on the second story bathroom floor in his Graceland home. She recounted that Elvis appeared like “his entire body had completely frozen in a seated position while using the commode and then had fallen forward, in that fixed position, directly in front of it.” She stated that it was clear to her that the moment of his head hit the floor he did not move. Continuous attempts were made to revive the 42-year-old singer, but doctors pronounced him dead at 3:30 PM that day at the nearby Baptist Memorial Hospital claiming Elvis passed away from cardiac arrhythmia. Doctors say they struggled to resuscitate him without success. During the original autopsy, the doctor stated that drugs were not involved. However, to other pathologists admitted at a different time that the real cause of death was being covered up at the request of surviving family members who were attempting to save Elvis’ reputation.
Weeks later, toxicology reports revealed that there were significant opiates in the singer’s body including Percodan, Demerol, Dilaudid, Quaaludes, and codeine. Other evidence found that Elvis was suffering from chronic and severe constipation, glaucoma and diabetes. Investigators found that Elvis was a long-time abuser of drugs, especially opiates, which can exacerbate constipation. There are indications that he abused laxatives, sleeping pills, barbiturates, Valium and other medications.
Elvis’s death might be attributed to medical malpractice. His doctor admitted to the Tennessee Board of Health that he had long prescribed Elvis ongoing doses of addictive medications and gave him (sugar pills) to control his ongoing addiction. The doctor testified that he prescribed Elvis the medications he desired to keep them from seeking out illegal drugs on the street. Unfortunately, Elvis was not the only patient who received undated prescriptions from his doctor. In 1980, the doctor overprescribed others including Jerry Lee Lewis. However, the doctor was acquitted of all charges. By 1995, his medical license was permanently suspended by the Tennessee Board of Medical Examiners.
Lisa Robin Kelly
Born: March 5, 1970 (Southington, Connecticut) Died: August 15, 2013 (Altadena, California)
Actress Lisa Robin Kelly, a popular star of Married… With Children, Silk Stackings, Charmed, Amityville Doll House, Jawbreaker and Late Last Night just a few days after she checked into the Altadena California Pax Rehab House. The initial investigation revealed that Lisa died in her sleep at age 43 and August 15, 2013. The Los Angeles medical examiner concluded Kelly died of an accidental multiple drug intoxication (accidental overdose). Nearly a year after Lisa Robin died, her estranged husband filed a wrongful death lawsuit in California against Pax Rehab House where she was receiving treatment. The lawsuit that was based on “negligence resulting in wrongful death” was eventually settled out of court for an unspecified amount. Her estranged husband believed that Lisa’s was “neglected for an unreasonable amount of time” by those who were in charge of providing her care at the center.
The coroner never identified exactly what drugs were in Lisa Robin’s body when she died. Her estranged husband said that she was last seen alive on the evening of August 14 by members of the Center’s staff and was not discovered debt until hours later. At the time of for admittance of the facility, she had a blood-alcohol test result of 0.34 which is considered almost fatal.
Born: October 5, 1957 (Chicago Illinois) Died: August 9, 2008 (Chicago Illinois)
Medical health complications involving pneumonia claimed the life of comedian Bernie Mac (McCullough) on August 9, 2008. Three years before his death, doctors diagnosed Bernie with sarcoidosis, an autoimmune tissue inflammation disease that in Mac’s case attack the lungs. Doctors admitted Bernie to Chicago’s Northwestern Memorial Hospital in 2008 a week before he experienced a fatal cardiac arrest after receiving ineffective medical treatment. The 50-year-old comedian died of complications of pneumonia. His wife stated that she saw him shake with his eyes wide open in the day before he passed away.
Bernie’s widow filed a lawsuit against Bernie’s dermatologist for not recognizing the obvious symptoms associated with the respiratory distress in the weeks before his death. His wife claimed that the dermatologists Bernie at the clinic for hours instead of transferring them to the hospital for admittance even after he showed signs of respiratory failure. The dermatologists advised Bernie to go to the hospital only after Mac had stated he got an injection for a cold that morning. The dermatologists called his other treating doctor and were informed that Bernie had been diagnosed with pneumonia that day. However, in 2010, Bernie’s wife withdrew her lawsuit so that legal issues could be fixed to resolve the case. Some Illinois attorneys familiar with state tort law believed that his widow might have dropped the case because the dermatologist did not have adequate medical malpractice insurance when Bernie passed away which might reduce the amount of compensation Bernie’s wife could receive.
Born: September 24, 1948 (Brantford, Ontario, Canada) Died: May 28, 1998 (Encino, California)
Phil was murdered by his wife in a murder-suicide event in the early hours of May 28, 1998, after apparently going to bed following a heated argument with his wife Brynn Hartman, claiming he would leave her if she began using illegal drugs again. At some point during the night, Brynn entered their bedroom with a 38-caliber gun and shot Phil once in the side and twice in the head. Investigators say that at this time Brynn was intoxicated and under the influence of cocaine. After the incident, his wife drove to a friend’s home and confessed that she had killed Phil. The friend not believing Brynn drove to the Hartman house in separate vehicles. The friend saw Phil’s body at 6:20 AM and called 911. During that time, Brynn committed suicide after barricading herself in the bedroom with a single shot through her right eye.
During the initial stages of the investigation, law enforcement stated that Phil’s death was the result of the couple’s discord. This claim was supported by a friend stated that Phil’s wife “had trouble controlling her anger [and] got attention by losing her temper.” However, other causes of the event could be just as valid including Brynn’s use of Zoloft, an antidepressant medication. Because of that, Brynn’s brother filed a lawsuit against Pfizer and his sister psychiatrist who had prescribed Brynn Zoloft to hold the drug maker financially accountable for the family’s losses.
Born: June 8, 1933 (Brooklyn, New York, New York) Died: September 4, 2014 (New York City, New York)
In 2014, Comedian Joan Rivers suffered a heart attack and was put into a medically-induced coma at Mount Sinai Hospital in New York City days after she had undergone routine surgery on her throat at a nearby Ambulatory Surgical Center, an outpatient clinic. Law enforcement investigated the incident that raises more questions than it answered. Authorities question whether there was sufficient life-saving equipment at the ambulatory surgical center and if the anesthesiologist receives sufficient training in intubation and sedation.
Complications in a surgical procedure occurred when she stopped breathing while having mental throat procedure performed at the Yorkville, Manhattan outpatient clinic. After resuscitating the comedian, doctors transferred their 81-year-old patient to Mount Sinai Hospital for the medical team placed her on life support. Investigators revealed that the doctors at the outpatient clinic made numerous mistakes while the procedure was underway and afterward. The investigator stated that the clinic failed to respond to the deteriorating vital signs Joan was experiencing including a rapidly declining blood pressure. Some question whether Rivers was given the correct anesthetic dosage and other medical clinic irregularities. There is not sufficient evidence to determine if doctors perform the surgical procedure with Joan’s consent.
In 2015, surviving family members, including her daughter Melissa Rivers filed a lawsuit against Ambulatory Surgical Center in the State Supreme Ct. in Manhattan. The lawsuit alleges that Joan’s doctors performed an unauthorized medical procedure including taking a self a photograph with Ms. Rivers when she was under anesthesia. Other allegations include that the clinic doctors mishandled the procedure when they performed a laryngoscopy and Joan’s vocal cords without her consent and not the endoscopy the medical team was to perform. The Rivers family agreed to a negotiated out-of-court settlement but did not disclose how much the settlement was worth. The family stated that they wanted to “make certain that the focus of this horrific incident remains on to improve patient care and the legacy of Joan Rivers.”
A timeline of events occurring at that morning state that at 9:04 AM the medical team verified they were about to operate on the correct person and perform the correct procedure at the correct site. Eight minutes later at 9:12 AM, her vital signs began deviating, and her blood pressure fell to 117/60 with a 71-pulse rate. For minutes later, Joan’s blood pressure dropped to 95/54 with 56 pulse rate per minute. By 9:21 AM, the pulse rate continued to drop (to 54) and blood pressure (89/44). By 928, the surgeon continued with the procedure for a couple of minutes with the technician noting that the surgeon and anesthesiologist “did not object to [the doctor] performing the laryngoscopy.” By 9:30 AM, the doctor withdrew the laryngoscope and initiated cardiopulmonary resuscitation (CPR). Eight minutes later, the doctor administered atropine and epinephrine. However, there are conflicting notes in the operating room were an alternate notation states that at 9:28 AM, doctors gave Rivers the atropine and epinephrine right away. It took until 10:00 AM to successfully resuscitate Rivers who was transferred to Mount Sinai Hospital for minutes later. Joan passed away one week later at 1:15 PM on September 4, 2014.
Born: May 17, 1955 (Fort Worth, Texas) Died: February 25, 2017 (Los Angeles, California)
In February 2017, at 61 years old, actor Bill (William) Paxton died of a stroke at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center in Los Angeles, California after undergoing open-heart surgery to the corrected aortic aneurysm and replace a faulty heart valve. While the surgery appeared to be successful, Paxton died eleven days later. The medical examiner determined that the actor died from a stroke after surgery-related complications.
Surviving family members of the “Titanic,” “Aliens,” and “Big Love” star filed a lawsuit against the hospital alleging that the surgeon used “high risk and unconventional surgical approach with which he lacked experience.” The lawsuit is based on the surgeon misrepresenting or concealing “information regarding to the risk of surgery.” The family believes that the medical mistakes by the doctor contributed to Bill’s complications in the days following the surgery.
The family’s lawyer stated that Paxton “and his family trusted the physicians and staff at this medical facility, but instead Cedars-Sinai betrayed their trust.” It is their belief that “the surgeon’s actions resulted in the tragic and preventable death.” The lawsuit alleges that the defendants were negligent when they diagnosed, managed and treated Paxton’s condition and failed to disclose the doctor would be using unconventional surgical approaches and did not have the experience beyond the scope of his privileges.” Bill left behind a wife and two children.
A Question of Negligence
In each of the cases above, investigators, medical examiners, and attorneys’ question the gross negligence by a medical professional led to the death of the celebrities. In many of these cases, the doctor followed administration and prescribing practices that breach the acceptable standards of care by prescribing medications that were not needed or failing to perform treatment, surgery, and care that was required. In many cases, these medical professionals will build a defense in civil cases to show that their actions were reasonable, requiring the plaintiff’s lawyers to push back and show how their actions created liability toward the victim.