HELENA – A split Montana Supreme Court on Wednesday overturned a former western Montana pain doctor’s convictions of negligent homicide in the deaths of two patients.
The justices, in a 4-3 ruling, said prosecutors did not present sufficient evidence to establish that Chris Christensen’s actions in prescribing narcotics were the direct cause of the deaths of Greg Griffin in 2012 and Kara Philbrick in 2013.
Christensen, whose practice in Florence was raided by federal agents in 2014, has now avoided legal consequences for the overdose deaths of seven patients, including five in Idaho in the 1990s. He surrendered his medical license for two years after the Idaho cases.
Toxicologists said Philbrick had six drugs and alcohol in her system when she died. Christensen had prescribed her only two medications, both of which can be used as pain medication.
Griffin had seven drugs and marijuana in his system, an autopsy found, but Christensen had prescribed only methadone and Xanax, a drug to treat anxiety, the majority noted.
The justices, in a 5-2 ruling, upheld Christensen’s convictions on nine counts of criminal endangerment and 11 counts of criminal distribution of dangerous drugs after finding he acted more like a “drug pusher” than a physician in overprescribing opiate and anti-anxiety medications to patients with histories of drug abuse and addiction.
Three of the justices said they would have upheld the negligent homicide convictions.
Two justices said Montana’s laws were not designed to prosecute physicians for writing ill-advised prescriptions, and the families of the victims should have pursued a medical malpractice case. They would have overturned all of the convictions.
Christensen was convicted in November 2017 and sentenced in February 2018 to 20 years in prison with 10 suspended. The ruling returns the case to state court for resentencing.
Ravalli County Attorney Bill Fulbright did not immediately return a phone message seeking comment and the listed phone number for Christensen’s attorney, Joseh Van de Wetering, rang busy on Wednesday afternoon.
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