A California judge dismissed a murder charge Friday filed against a drug and alcohol rehabilitation center where a man died after seeking help to treat a drinking problem.
The case was the first time a California corporation was accused of murder, the facility's attorneys said.
Riverside County Superior Court Judge Elaine Kiefer ruled there was insufficient evidence to support the second-degree murder charge against A Better Tomorrow and four of its employees in the 2010 death of patient Gary Benefield.
In her ruling, Kiefer wrote the workers gave Benefield drugs with the intention of easing his discomfort, not causing any harm. The drugs were prescribed to alleviate withdrawal symptoms.
"There is no evidence that any of the defendants knew that their acts of giving medications to Benefield were dangerous to the extent that they risked killing him, and so no evidence that they consciously disregarded that risk to Benefield's life," Kiefer wrote.
Benefield collapsed by his bed and died shortly after arriving at A Better Tomorrow in Murrieta. His body was found in the morning.
Experts testified the drugs Benefield was given would not cause death on their own. But a physician who took the stand for the prosecution said that while drug toxicity was not a primary issue in his cause of death, it could have been a factor.
Legal experts have said the murder charge could be hard to prosecute but might have been intended to put California's drug and rehabilitation industry on alert.
In a statement, the attorney general's office said the facility remains responsible for Benefield's death.
"Patients and family members rely on the promises of caregivers and trust they will provide the best possible care to their loved ones," spokeswoman Rachele Huennekens said. "A Better Tomorrow broke its promises, violated that trust, and caused the untimely death of Gary Benefield, a vulnerable person seeking help to overcome addiction."
Brian Hennigan, an attorney representing one of the employee defendants, said the dismissal brought a "great feeling of relief."
"We got a fair hearing, had a chance to present our evidence, and the court reached the right conclusion," Hennigan said.