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NY top court upholds doctor's conviction in OD deaths

Dr. Stan Li, right, who is on trial

Dr. Stan Li, right, who is on trial on manslaughter charges after New York City authorities said he sold painkiller prescriptions to two patients who died of overdoses, leaves court Wednesday April 2, 2014, in New York. Credit: AP/Bebeto Matthews

ALBANY – New York’s top court on Tuesday upheld the conviction of the first doctor in the state found guilty of manslaughter in connection with his opioid prescribing practices.

Dr. Stan Li, who operated a pain clinic in Queens, was challenging his 2014 manslaughter conviction in the deaths of two patients.

Li claimed a doctor, under current law, cannot be found guilty of a homicide for prescribing a controlled substance where, “if taken as prescribed, the does would not have been fatal.” He also asserted there was legally insufficient evidence that his conduct was the direct cause of the deaths of Joseph Haeg, a 37-year-old Center Moriches resident, and Nicholas Rappold, a 21-year-old Queens man, in 2009.

But the State Court of Appeals rejected those arguments in a 6-1 decision.

Judge Eugene Fahey, writing for the majority, noted the trial showed Li repeatedly prescribed more and more opioids to Haeg and Rappold without examining them or determining whether the prescriptions were “medically necessary.”

That, in part, was sufficient to legally constitute “recklessness” in the deaths of the two men, the judge said.

Enough evidence was presented at the trial to show Li’s “conduct amount to a ‘gross deviation’ from how a reasonable person would act,” Fahey wrote.

Raymond Belair, Li’s attorney, said the decision was disappointing.

“We had hoped to prevail, among many other grounds, on the fact that Dr. Li had no reason to believe that his prescriptions would likely cause the deaths of these two specific patients,” Belair wrote in an email. He noted the one dissenting judge, Rowan Wilson, “explicitly recognizes that "the prescriptions ‘were not foreseeably the direct cause of their deaths.’ However, at this point our options are few. The new rule announced today for New York physicians is very troubling."

The office of Manhattan District Attorney Cyrus Vance Jr. didn't immediately comment.

A jury convicted Li not only of manslaughter but also six counts of criminal endangerment and 180 counts of illegal sales of prescriptions for controlled substances. He was given a sentence of 10-20 years in prison.

He is an inmate at a Hudson Valley state penitentiary and will be eligible for parole in 2024, according to the state Department of Corrections and Community Supervision.

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