Widow of former Henninger High coach Joe Mazella wins $1.5M in lawsuit over his suicide
The state Supreme Court jury found that the negligent treatment Mazella received from Dr. William Beals, of Clay, caused Mazella to commit suicide Sept. 12, 2009.
Mazella, 51, was a beloved basketball coach, phys ed teacher and assistant principal at Henninger for 28 years. His death at his home in Eastwood shocked the people who knew him as an upbeat guy with a great sense of humor.
The trial over his widow’s lawsuit was the first public acknowledgement that Mazella had committed suicide.
If he hadn’t been overmedicated and his doctors had paid attention to his condition, Mazella never would’ve taken his life, said his widow, Janice Mazella.
“There’s no way he would’ve wanted to do it” if he weren’t on such a large amount of antidepressants, Janice Mazella said. “It was done to him. It was done because of the improper care he received.”
He’d given no hint that he was suicidal, but he was complaining often about the effects of his medications, Janice Mazella said.
“He said he felt like his head was on fire,” she said. “There was something going on in his head and he just couldn’t figure it out. He said, ‘I wish I could just open my head up and hose it off and close it back up again. Then I’d feel OK.’”
Even though Beals was prescribing the antidepressant Paxil, he hadn’t seen Mazella for 10 years, Janice Mazella said. Beals was filling prescriptions over the phone, she said. Often, Mazella would leave a message saying he was running out of medications, and Beals would leave a message saying the prescription had been filled, Janice Mazella said.
In February, the state health department charged Beals with practicing with negligence for prescribing drugs to patients for many years without seeing them in his office. He was placed on probation for three years.
In September, the state disciplined Beals for abusing drugs and alcohol himself. His probation was extended to five years.
The jury found another of Mazella’s physicians, Dr. Elisabeth Mashinic, also was negligent. But that negligence did not contribute to Mazella’s death, the jury found. The jury found Beals was 100 percent responsible.
The jury awarded $800,000 to Janice Mazella for the loss of her husband’s income, $200,000 to his youngest daughter, and $100,000 to each of his two oldest daughters. That was compensation for their loss of his support, guidance and nurturing.
An additional $324,000 in interest will be added to the verdict, bringing the total to $1.524 million. The jury deliberated over two days, following a two-week trial before state Supreme Court Justice John Cherundolo.
Beals refused to comment Tuesday. His lawyer, Kevin Hunt, could not be reached for comment.
Janice Mazella's lawyer was Ernest DelDuchetto of Syracuse.
The Food and Drug Administration in 2007 ordered makers of Paxil and other antidepressants to add warnings to their packaging saying the drugs increased the risk of suicidal thinking.
Mazella was having an anxiety attack in early August 2009, his widow said. Beals put him on another antidepressant and doubled his dosage of Paxil, Janice Mazella said.
Soon after that, Mazella went to St. Joseph’s Hospital Health Center with what he and Janice thought was a heart attack, she said. That was ruled out, and a doctor put him on a lower dose of Paxil, she said.
Soon after that, the Mazellas had their first office visit with Beals in 10 years, Janice Mazella said. He was furious that they’d gone to the hospital and “exposed his treatment” and threw them out, Janice Mazella said.
Mazella was hospitalized soon after that in Auburn, where Mashinic switched him from Paxil to three other medications but failed to discharge him with scheduled followup examinations with a doctor, Janice Mazella said. Such monitoring should’ve been set up because of the known suicidal side effects of the drugs, she said.
For the next three weeks, Mazella was feeling the side effects, his widow said.
“When he got out of the hospital, that’s when it got worse, when his head was burning,” she said. “He said it felt like he had hot poison going through his veins. It felt so awful from the inside.”
As the Henninger boys’ basketball coach, Mazella had a record of 245-78, with nine league championships, five sectional titles, five regional and five final four appearances. In 2002, his team won the Class A state championship, the first one in Section III.
Janice Mazella said she hopes the verdict sends a message to patients and their loved ones to be careful about doctors overmedicating.
“It’s just what the medical community does – medicate, medicate, medicate,” she said. “I hope through this that people are aware, so they can step it up and question and do more than I did and Joe did, so this doesn’t happen to them. If this can save another person, that’s what I want to happen.”
Contact John O’Brien at email@example.com or 470-2187.