A West Columbia drug treatment clinic irresponsibly prescribed methadone to a known drug addict who mixed it with other drugs and then rammed an oncoming vehicle, killing a couple and burning their teenage grandson to death, a federal lawsuit contends.
The impaired driver, Robert Moore Jr., 62, of Leesville, also was killed in the crash on U.S. 378, 10 miles west of Lexington on Nov. 20, the lawsuit filed in Columbia asserts.
The case, filed by the mother of 16-year-old Cooper Gunnells Jr., is believed to be the first in South Carolina against a methadone treatment clinic. The suit alleges the clinic’s actions played a role in the fatal collision.
The methadone Moore had taken was prescribed by Columbia Metro Treatment Center, which should have known from weekly urinalyses that he shouldn’t have been taking methadone “along with a slew of other prescription and illicit drugs” he was known to ingest, the lawsuit states.
Defendants in the case are the West Columbia clinic and its parent company, Colonial Management Group, headquartered in Orlando, Fla.
Colonial Management is not yet ready to comment on the lawsuit, a company spokeswoman said Friday.
According to Colonial Management Group’s website, the company operates a chain of methadone treatment centers across the nation and offers prescription and opiate drug addicts comprehensive treatment aimed at eventually weaning them off drugs. The treatment allows many addicts to “lead normal, productive lives” while undergoing treatment, according to the company.
Clinic did not try to wean patient, suit alleges
Columbia Metro Treatment Center is one of 64 Colonial sites, according to the suit, which states that Moore and its other patients “pay cash, and only cash, as the company does not accept checks, debit cards or credit cards.”
Columbia Metro “generates $1.2 million in revenue selling methadone to addicts,” the suit contends.
Regular doses of methadone, a synthetic drug that reduces the craving for real opioids such as OxyContin, is a key feature of the clinics’ programs, the company’s website states.
Although Moore had been a paying patient for five years, the company “never made any effort to ‘detox’ Mr. Moore or wean him from his use of the addictive substances for which he initially sought treatment,” the lawsuit states.
Seven days before the fatal crash, Moore tested positive at Columbia Metro for methadone, amphetamines, Xanax and OxyContin, according to the suit. Methadone, Xanax and OxyContin can cause drowsiness.
After the crash, the State Law Enforcement Division did tests on Moore that showed he was “under the influence” of methadone, Xanax and Adderall, the suit alleges. While methadone and Xanax can cause sleepiness, Adderall can cause seizures.
At 5:45 pm. Nov. 20, Moore’s Chevrolet Silverado was traveling west on U.S. 378 at 70 mph – 15 miles over the speed limit – when it suddenly veered toward the lane of eastbound cars, striking two, and then plowing head-on into a Ford Explorer driven by Harry Gunnells, 73, of Saluda, according to the S.C. Highway Patrol.
His wife, Barbara, 74, was in the back seat, and their grandson, Cooper, 16, of Greenwood, was in the front passenger seat, according to the patrol’s report.
The impact caused the Gunnells’ Explorer to burst into flames, the lawsuit states. Harry and Barbara Gunnells died on impact, but their grandson, who suffered from spina bifida, was pinned in the wreckage and was “burned by the flames and suffocated by the smoke,” according to the the lawsuit.
Previous legal actions in this case have been by the estates of the three Gunnells against Moore, the driver.
Earlier crash drove man to addiction, his lawyer said
Columbia Metro “owed a duty of care to third parties” and should have known the dispensation of methadone to a “known drug addict and continuing drug user, such as Mr. Moore,” was inherently dangerous, the suit states.
Lexington County attorney Jake Moore, who represented Robert Moore Jr.’s estate, told The State newspaper Friday that the deceased is his second cousin and had a tragic story.
Some years back Robert Moore was in a serious car crash, broke his back and legs and continued to suffer tremendous pain, attorney Moore said. Doctors prescribed painkillers and he became addicted to prescription drugs because they were the only way to quell the pain, Jake Moore said.
“He was not a criminal drug addict,” attorney Moore said. “He had got to where he was better after the accident, and went back to work, but when you are addicted, you are addicted. He was in the process of trying to become unaddicted by taking methadone.”
Robert Moore left a family and children, bought and sold plants and worked as a labor contractor at the State Farmers Market. “He was not a wealthy man, just a normal working fellow. Everything was fine until his back was so horribly injured,” Jake Moore said.
Jimmy Mount, spokesman for the S.C. Department of Alcohol and Other Drug Abuse Services, said opioid addiction is a serious problem in South Carolina and deaths are rising – to 559 in 2015 from 517 in 2014.
In 2015, some 1,250 patients were diagnosed by S.C. hospital emergency rooms with an opioid overdose, up from 993 overdose diagnoses in 2014, according to the state agency.
Currently some 5,000 clients are taking methadone to wean themselves off other narcotics at the state’s public and private drug treatment clinics, Mount said.
The lawsuit seeks unspecified actual and punitive damages.
“This is a tragedy. A young man’s life was snuffed out because of what we believe is the lack of supervision and control over a very dangerous drug,” said Dick Harpootlian, attorney for Gunnells’ mother, Kathey Santandreu.
Federal Judge Terry Wooten will preside in the case, which is likely months from a trial.