On November 29, 2012, the Court of Appeals of New York (New York’s highest appellate court) issued its written memorandum in a case we first blogged about on October 22, 2012 (“Doctor Had An Affair With His Patient: Is It Medical Malpractice?“). The Court of Appeals (“the Court”) stated in its decision, “The standard for medical malpractice is that ‘the challenged conduct constitute medical treatment or bear a substantial relationship’ to the physician’s treatment of the patient …. Here, where defendant was prescribing a course of treatment for plaintiff’s mental health problems, including medication and counseling, a jury might reasonably conclude that the sexual relationship was substantially related to and, in fact, interfered with the treatment so as to constitute medical malpractice.”
The medical malpractice plaintiff had sought and obtained treatment for depression and stress from the medical malpractice defendant (a doctor of osteopathic medicine) in January, 2000. The medical malpractice defendant prescribed anti-depressant drugs and suggested that the woman get more exercise or take warm baths to relieve stress and referred her to a therapist for counseling.
The doctor and his patient began an adulterous affair in June, 2001, which started with a sexual encounter in a gym where the medical malpractice defendant was showing the woman exercises to alleviate stress and anxiety. Their sexual relationship continued several times a week for nine months until they mutually agreed to end their affair. The woman confessed her adultery to her husband, who then sued for divorce. The divorce proceeding was contentious and protracted over the course of five years before a settlement was reached.
In February, 2005, the woman filed a medical malpractice lawsuit against her doctor. She testified during the trial that she felt the affair was wrong but was unable to control herself. Her expert at trial testified that the woman’s romantic feelings towards her doctor were the result of “eroticized transference,” a medical phenomenon in which the patient experiences “near psychotic attraction” to a treating physician, which the patient is powerless to resist. The woman sought damages against the doctor for medical malpractice for her mental distress as well as damages in the amount of $435,600 for loss of her husband’s financial support and $155,000 for legal fees incurred in connection with the divorce.
The jury was allowed to consider the comparative negligence of the woman. The jury determined that the woman’s conduct was a substantial factor and that she was 25% at fault. The medical malpractice jury awarded the woman $154,000 for past mental distress, $50,000 for future mental distress, $134,000 for past loss of income, $0 for future loss of income, $0 for her divorce expenses, and $166,000 in punitive damages. Both parties appealed: the doctor challenged the finding that his conduct constituted medical malpractice and the woman claimed that she was not comparatively at fault.
In deciding the appeal the Court stated, “Plaintiff sought out defendant for medical treatment for depression and anxiety. Defendant prescribed anti-depressant medication for plaintiff, even switching medications in response to her concerns about diminished libido; he referred her to a therapist. Further, the jury heard considerable testimony about the “transference” phenomenon, and defendant’s professional duty to manage this once he began treating plaintiff’s mental health problems …. Here, where defendant was prescribing a course of treatment for plaintiff’s mental health problems, including medication and counseling, a jury might reasonably conclude that the sexual relationship was substantially related to and, in fact, interfered with the treatment so as to constitute medical malpractice. That defendant mismanaged plaintiff’s medical condition does not, however, negate comparative fault. The affair continued for nine months, during which time both plaintiff and defendant clearly sought out repeated sexual encounters. The jury might, as it obviously did, reasonably discount the expert’s testimony that plaintiff was wholly without volition in the matter.”
The Court further determined that the award of punitive damages was improper: “The standard for an award of punitive damages is that a defendant manifest evil or malicious conduct beyond any breach of professional duty. There must be “‘aggravation or outrage, such as spite or “malice,” or a fraudulent or evil motive on the part of the defendant, or such a conscious and deliberate disregard of the interests of others that the conduct may be called willful or wanton'” …. The circumstances here do not measure up to this standard: there is no evidence the doctor willfully caused plaintiff’s “transference” or harm.”
Source Kristin Kahkonen Dupree v. James E. Giugliano, No. 204
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