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Tufts settles suit against doctor in girl’s death for $2.5m

By Patricia Wen
Globe Staff / January 25, 2011

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Lawyers for the estate of 4-year-old Rebecca Riley announced last night that they have settled their medical malpractice lawsuit against the girl’s psychiatrist, Dr. Kayoko Kifuji of Tufts Medical Center, for $2.5 million.

Boston lawyer Benjamin Novotny said the settlement will be distributed to Rebecca’s two siblings, now 15 and 10, with whom she had lived in Hull before her death four years ago from an overdose of psychiatric drugs prescribed by Kifuji.

Rebecca’s parents, Carolyn and Michael Riley, were convicted last year in separate trials of murdering their daughter through their reckless dispensing of the drugs used for attention deficit hyperactivity disorder and bipolar illness.

Andrew Meyer, who works with Novotny, said the settlement did not contain any admission of wrongdoing on the part of Kifuji, but he said the doctor’s lawyers’ decision to settle for $2.5 million, which Meyer said is the maximum paid out by Kifuji’s malpractice policy, suggests culpability. He said the hospital self-insures many of its doctors, including Kifuji.

Tufts Medical Center, which continues to employ Kifuji as a child psychiatrist, said officials chose to settle to spare the siblings more heartache.

“A lengthy civil trial would once again subject Rebecca’s siblings and everyone who cared about her to the painful details brought forth during the criminal trials of her parents,’’ said a statement released last night through spokeswoman Julie Jette.

The psychiatrist’s role in Rebecca’s death has been a source of intense controversy. Shortly after Rebecca died in December 2006, Kifuji entered into a voluntary agreement with the Board of Registration of Medicine to halt her practice.

But two years later, after the grand jury declined to indict her and the licensing board conducted its own initial inquiry, the board allowed her to return to practice. Kifuji has been seeing patients over the past year.

Still, many in the medical and legal community questioned why Kifuji was not held criminally accountable. When Rebecca died, Kifuji was the psychiatrist for all three Riley children, diagnosing each with ADHD and bipolar illness and prescribing similar mood-altering drugs.

According to testimony during the trials, Kifuji had been fooled by the parents into believing the children had serious psychiatric illnesses, in part so the parents could collect federal disability checks for the youngsters’ alleged behavioral and mental disorders. Many jurors questioned why Kifuji, who had indications about the parents’ dangerous conduct, did not do more to protect the Riley children.

Kifuji, who agreed to testify only after being granted immunity from prosecution, said in court that she was following diagnostic criteria and treatment protocols followed by many well-established child psychiatrists. She said she had no idea that the parents were giving extra medication to their children.

Novotny said the estate chose not to go to trial because any judgment beyond $2.5 million would have to be recovered from the psychiatrist’s personal assets, and they assessed those were relatively limited.

Carolyn Riley’s teenage child from a previous relationship had also been involved in the medical malpractice case, but the judge ruled that that child was not entitled to any of the settlement, Novotny said.

Novotny also said the final settlement included language requiring Tufts to set up educational and outreach programs to help provide more mental health services for children. He said he was pleased that the case is settled, but added, “There’s no amount of money that can right this wrong.’’

Patricia Wen can be reached at wen@globe.com.