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FMG Law Blog Line

How Fine is the Line Between Medical Malpractice and Life in Prison?

Posted on: February 22nd, 2017

By: Shaun Daugherty

It was all over the major news networks and the print media. On Monday, February 21, 2017, a Dallas, Texas jury sentenced Dr. Christopher Duntsch, neurosurgeon, to life in prison for a “botched surgery.” While he was initially arrested on five counts of aggravated assault, the 13-day trial apparently focused on one 74-year old patient and the infliction of an injury that constituted a first-degree felony under the circumstances. The jury apparently had to find that Dr. Duntsch acted “intentionally, knowingly, recklessly, or with criminal negligence” in injuring an elderly person.

In reading several articles on this story, I had to go back and make sure that I was not reading a case alleging medical negligence and punitive damages. The fact pattern was strikingly similar. The elderly patient at issue reportedly lost a significant amount of blood during the procedure and lost the full use of her legs. These are complications that are not uncommonly alleged in surgical medical negligence cases. The subsequent treating surgeon testified that he found implants placed in muscle instead of bone, a screw directly placed into her spinal cavity and severed nerves. Testimony that one would expect from an expert opinion on the standard of care and elements of causation. He was quoted as saying that the prior surgery was “as egregious as you can image.” A motion in limine would hopefully keep this particular opinion out of a civil trial.

During Dr. Duntsch’s trial, the jury was also provided testimony from multiple other patients that experienced “complications” following their own encounters with the surgeon dubbed “Dr. Death.” This is the type of evidence that one might expect to be presented in the punitive damages phase of a medical negligence trial. This is the type of evidence that would be presented to show the “reckless disregard for the consequences.”

Obviously there are major differences between criminal and civil law and the evidence to prove each. However, when you read of medical providers being convicted and imprisoned for fact patterns that resemble those that we deal with in the medical negligence claims, you start to wonder. Remember Conrad Murray, Michael Jackson’s physician, who was convicted of involuntary manslaughter for exercising his medical judgment? I recall the media reports in that case sounded more like medical negligence rather than a criminal case.

These are examples of exceptional cases with extenuating circumstances. A civil lawsuit leading to monetary recovery is the typical scenario and then the case ends. However, in the right circumstances, a jury could find that the same evidence presented to prove negligence, gross negligence and/or punitive liability in the civil setting could also lead to jail time in a criminal trial.

For any questions, please contact Shaun Daugherty at [email protected].

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