A Los Angeles Superior Court judge ordered Dr. Hsui-Ying “Lisa” Tseng to stand trial for second degree murder in the deaths of three young men, one of whom was Vu Nguyen, 28, from Lake Forest. The decision came after a preliminary hearing that lasted three weeks. The osteopathic medicine doctor allegedly prescribed a myriad of drugs, including oxycodone, methacodone, and Xanax, to patients who came to her with questionable complaints, some were even known to have drug addiction problems.
Judge M.L. Villar de Longoria decided Tseng should stand trial after concluding that she “improperly used her prescription pad to cause irreparable harm,” the Los Angeles Times reports. The decision is a momentous one, considering it's very rare for a doctor to be held criminally liable for deaths related to prescription drugs. Only a handful have ever been convicted nationwide, according to the Associated Press.
The case has received extensive news coverage, and was recounted in Behind the Orange Curtain, a documentary shown at the Newport Beach Film Festival about Orange County teens who succumbed to drug overdoses. Executive producer Natalie Costa said the film came to be after her daughter's friend passed away in May 2010 due to overdosing on opana – a high-level painkiller. Costa is currently trying to lobby implementing a statewide prescription monitoring program.
“There's a tsunami of parents that are banding together to try to get some regulatory action going so that people just don't have the free reigns of the pen to divvy out opiates like they're M&Ms,” she said.
Deaths related to drug overdoses now outnumber traffic deaths, which leads some public health experts to describe prescription drug abuse as a national health epidemic. The case of Dr. Tseng is no doubt fueling the conversation once again.
During the preliminary hearing, prosecution brought more than 40 witnesses to testify against Dr. Tseng including staff members who worked for Tseng and her husband's storefront medical clinic in Rowland Heights. Receptionist Gloria Rodriguez described the office space as crammed with dozens of patients who sometimes complained about the wait, to which Tseng told her, “They're druggies. They can wait,” reports CBS.
Deputy District Attorney John Niedermann started the hearing recalling the deaths of three men from Orange County who were under Tseng's care. Matthew Stavron, 24 and Ryan Latham, 21 died from overdose in 2007 as did Naythan Kenney, 34, in 2008. No charges were ever filed against Tseng in those cases, but the prosecution plans to use the deaths as evidence that Tseng knew men were dying under her watch.
Some of Tseng's former patients said they discovered her from fellow drug addicts, and others said they came to her after using up prescriptions from other doctors. The prosecution showed a video at the hearing of an undercover Drug Enforcement Administration agent who complained of wrist pain to Tseng. She told him he didn't need painkillers, but shortly after she prescribed him Vicodin and Xanax.
Overall, authorities claim Tseng wrote over 27,000 prescriptions during the span of three years.
Four out of Tseng's five defense attorneys argued that it was impossible for Tseng to know that her patients were lying to get more drugs. She wanted to treat their pain, and they willfully chose not to follow her instructions on taking the drugs; she can't be blamed for their decisions, argued the defense.
Tseng, 42, has been in custody since she was arrested on March 1 2012 on a felony complaint filed by the Los Angeles County District Attorney's office. She has been charged with 24 felony counts and pleaded not guilty. If convicted, however, she faces a maximum sentence of 45 years in prison. She is currently being held on 3 million dollars bail, which the judge refused to reduce to 1 million dollars per the defense attorneys request.
“Dr. Feelgoods who knowingly over-prescribe drugs for no medical reason other than someone asks for the drugs and pays the doctor a staggering amount of money will be dealt with severely,” said LA District Attorney Steve Cooley in a statement in March a few days after Tseng's arrest.