OKC doctor convicted in eight deaths now owes victims millions
Oklahoma City — Mary Degiusti knows she may never get even a fraction of the $20 million judgment she won against the doctor who prescribed her daughter enough pills to cause a fatal overdose.
But she hopes the threat of such a large payout while frighten other unscrupulous prescribers — and force Dr. William Valuck to remember her daughter and her grandson, who lost his mother.
“I just hope that no family has to go through this, that every doctor will think before doing something like this,” she said.
William Martin Valuck, 76, pleaded guilty to eight counts of second-degree murder in August 2014. He was sentenced to eight years, and is housed at the Jackie Brannon Correctional Center, a minimum-security facility in McAlester. Five other deaths were later linked to his prescribing.
One of those murder counts stood for the life of Degiusti's daughter, Jennifer Zimmerman, who died of an overdose at age 34. Zimmerman had been a patient of Valuck's from October 2011 until her death on Dec. 6, 2013. She died only one day after Valuck prescribed her 450 pills, a supply that was supposed to last her one month, Degiusti said.
Even if the pills were of the lowest dose available, 15 hydrocodone and oxycodone pills each day would greatly exceed current safe prescribing guidelines.
On Wednesday, Oklahoma County District Court Judge Patricia Parrish ruled he owed Zimmerman's estate $10 million in damages for wrongful death, and another $10 million in punitive damages.
Valuck has been sued multiple times by patients and patients' relatives over medical negligence. Records show at least five medical negligence lawsuits related to patient deaths are still pending in Oklahoma County District Court. Patients also have sued Valuck over drug addictions they said were caused by his prescribing.
Valuck's responsibility for Zimmerman's death wasn't up for debate in the civil trial because of his guilty plea, said Joe Carson, an attorney representing Degiusti. The only question for the court was how much to award in damages, he said.
Don Smitherman, who represented Valuck, didn't return a call seeking comment.
At Valuck's murder trial, an investigator from the U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency testified patients typically received prescriptions for the opioids hydrocodone or oxycodone, the anti-anxiety drug alprazolam and the muscle relaxer carisoprodol. All three drugs slow patients' breathing, and using them together creates a high risk of overdose.
An Oklahoma State Bureau of Narcotics and Dangerous Drugs agent wrote that Valuck was “by far” the most prolific prescriber of controlled substances in Oklahoma in 2013, and that he wrote prescriptions after only a cursory medical examination.
During his murder trial, Valuck told a judge he had made more than $150,000 annually working at clinics in Oklahoma City, but said that money had been eaten up running and closing his clinic. He also claimed to still owe $375,000 in restitution from a money laundering and wire fraud conviction in 2000, for which he served five years in federal prison.
Carson said the chances of collecting a $20 million judgment from Valuck are “minimal,” but the goal was to send a message to other doctors engaged in irresponsible prescribing.
“We've had enough of this,” he said. “It's not just the (opioid) manufacturers, it's the doctors who look at (addicted patients) like a personal slot machine that pays out each month.”