In September 2000, Matthew
Couto was a high school senior. He was a star athlete on
the varsity soccer and basketball teams - good looking,
good natured and popular, and a good student, as well. On
September 14, 2000, just a few days shy of his 18th birthday,
Matt died by suicide. His parents, Lauren Fischer and Louis
Couto, II, found their only son dead, hanging in a closet
of their home.
might be alive today had either of his doctors had
the proper training or even followed standard procedure
in terms of communicating with each other and the
parents," said Howard
Snyder, of Snyder & Wenner law firm, Phoenix,
who represented Matt's parents.
Matt's parents became worried
about him in the spring of 2000. He seemed angry and depressed.
His behavior was inappropriate and out of character. Their
angst increased when Lauren found Matt with books on teenage
suicide, and he admitted having suicidal thoughts. They
took their only son to a psychologist who said he specialized
in treating adolescents, a claim they later found to be
The psychologist saw Matt or
his parents eleven times between June 12, 2000, and September
11, 2000. During this three-month period, he did virtually
nothing to help the troubled youth. But the doctor was far
from in the dark about the seriousness of Matt's case. The
distraught couple advised him of their son's interest in
books on teenage suicide, as well as his suicidal thoughts,
anger and depression. They related examples of Matt's escalating
out-of-character, risky behaviors. Perhaps most importantly,
Matt himself told the doctor what he hadnąt even told his
parents: That he had attempted suicide several months earlier.
The psychologist did not tell
Matt's parents about their son's previous suicide attempt,
although he knew that it placed the boy at 100 times greater
risk of trying again, and succeeding, to take his own life.
Instead, the doctor diagnosed Matt as "severely depressed,"
and told Lauren and Louis to give him complete freedom -
to take away all restrictions and let him come and go as
he pleased, bearing responsibility for his actions. He claimed
to have had great success in using this plan with other
the result of this case, and because we believe that
medical and other health care professionals should
be held accountable to the highest of standards, we
are joining with other suicide prevention advocates
to do everything in our power to prevent this from
happening again," added David Wenner, in announcing
the firm's co-sponsorship of www.arizonasuicidepreventionalert.com
on April 26, 2004.
The first, or primary, doctor
continued to see Matt, but also referred him to second psychologist
who claimed to specialize in treating suicidal adolescents.
This second doctor initially saw Matt on July 21, 2000.
She had the youth complete a checklist in which Matt identified
almost three dozen problems and concerns, including depression,
hopelessness, inferiority feelings, loneliness, poor impulse
control, low self-esteem, unhappiness, constant worrying
and thoughts of suicide. Matt told her that he had self-mutilated
and was physically violent. He also told her that had tried
before to kill himself and that he still had suicidal thoughts
several times a week. This second psychologist diagnosed
Matt with "major depression" and prescribed Zoloft,
a mood elevator that takes 4-8 weeks to reach therapeutic
levels. When she last saw him on August 16, the doctor assessed
Matt as being at risk for suicide. She was right: Matt would
be dead within a month.
Matthew Couto was neglected
and victimized by both doctors, who falsely claimed to be
specialists in the fields of adolescent mental health and
suicide. They took no decisive action to help him, despite
numerous red flags. They failed to tell his parents about
the biggest red flag of all - Matt's previous suicide attempt.
Although the second psychologist had a working relationship
with a psychiatrist, she failed to consult with the psychiatrist
about the case or refer Matt to him. The two psychologists
from whom Matt's parents sought help for their son never
even collaborated or communicated with each other about
Shortly before Matt died, his
mother found drug paraphernalia in his room and took it
to the primary psychologist immediately. She told him that
Matt was staying out all night, attending raves and possibly
using drugs. She said he was dressing differently, had new
friends, and was increasingly uncommunicative, depressed
and angry. She told him that his unrestrictive plan for
Matt wasn't working, but the doctor merely reminded her
that their course was to treat Matt as an adult and let
him be responsible for his own actions. The primary psychologist
never informed the second psychologist about this conversation.
Eight days before Matt killed
himself, the primary doctor told the parents that Matt was
not suicidal - that he merely was trying to "push their
buttons." During the week before Matt's suicide, Lauren
found this message on his computer screen: "Donąt bother
crying at my funeral. Your fucked up son, Matthew."
When Lauren told the primary doctor about the message, he
dismissed it as another dramatic attempt by Matt to push
his parents' buttons.
Matthew's primary psychologist
was wrong - dead wrong. Just a few days later, Matt killed
himself by hanging, just as he had attempted to do a few
Lauren Fischer and Louis Couto,
II, filed a malpractice suit against both the primary psychologist
and the second psychologist for the wrongful death of their
son, Matthew Couto, in the Superior Court of the State of
Arizona, County of Maricopa. The lawsuit was settled for
an undisclosed amount in October, 2003.
Partners in the Phoenix law
firm of Snyder and Wenner, P.C., Howard Synder and David
Wenner were the lead attorneys in the Matthew Couto case.
They have taken the issue of suicide beyond the courtroom
to work on preventing other suicides. David began his career
not in law, but in social work, where he developed an appreciation
for the challenges and the importance of working to improve
people's lives. As a result, he is often sought out nationally
to consult in cases involving mental health issues. Howard
is known as one of the most successful medical malpractice
lawyers in the country, comparable to New York's Tom Moore.
Both attorneys are recognized by the Best
Lawyers in America®.
& Wenner, P.C.
2200 E. Camelback Road,
Suite 213 Phoenix,
(602) 224-0005 Telephone
(602) 381-8997 Facsimile
to News Headlines