Clearly, when Otto von Bismarck said “Laws are like sausages, it is better not to see them being made” he apparently not never watched a surgery in progress. There is a fascinating case out of Virginia where a colonoscopy patient is suing over allegedly abusive comments made about him by his doctors . . . while he was under anesthesia. While this may sound like a torts version of the tree falling in a forest question, there was someone to hear these comments beyond the medical staff: “DB” had failed to turn off his cellphone which continued to record comments of the doctors ridiculing him, his body, and his character. [UPDATE: A Virginia jury awarded the patient $500,000]
DB says that he taped the instructions given to him by his doctors before the surgery but forgot to turn it off. When he played it back after the surgery, he was shocked by what he heard. His lawsuit says that Dr. Tiffany Ingham is recorded addressing his unconscious body: “And really, after five minutes of talking to you in pre-op I wanted to punch you in the face and man you up a little bit.” She also reportedly called him a “big wimp” and a “retard.” In addition about ridiculing his alma mater of Mary Washington College, she is quoted as saying more menacing things about firing a gun up his rectum and suggesting that they falsely note on his chart that he had hemorrhoids.
The staff is portrayed as exhibiting all of the decorum and professionalism of an Animal House fraternity with Ingham as the resident Bluto. Some members reportedly jokes about a rash on DB’s penis and how he looks like he has syphilis. Ingham, who comes off particularly badly, is quoted as saying “It’s probably tuberculosis in the penis, so you’ll be all right.”
DB says that the doctors then discussed how they would avoid him after the surgery.
He is suing for $1.35 million in damages for defamation, infliction of emotional distress and illegally disclosing his health records.
The defamation is particularly interesting. While an unconscious patient would have a challenge in making claims like assault, defamation does not require contemporary knowledge and indeed it is often discovered later by the victim. The real challenge is likely to be the defense of humor or opinion. Clearly they are expressing their opinion as to his being a “wimp” or “retard.” Even the statements about avoidance can be dismissed as opinion. No one would argue that the suggestion of firing a gun up his rectum or falsifying his chart were serious. That leads to a serious question of whether there is an actionable statement among these clearly unprofessional and unkind comments.
The infliction of emotional distress and disclosure of health records present a different legal profile. I can understand why a patient would find this recording highly embarrassing and distressful. It was intended to be stated among the medical team, of course, and the lawsuit now guaranteed a wider audience. Likewise, disclosure of facts to the medical team from his record could be viewed as protected. (However, those disclosures were not made for any apparent bona fide medical purpose).
In Virginia, the elements for an intentional infliction case include that “the wrongdoer’s conduct is intentional or reckless; the conduct is outrageous and intolerable; the alleged wrongful conduct and emotional distress are causally connected; and, the distress is severe.” Russo v. White, 241 Va. 23, 400 S.E.2d 160, 162, 7 Va. Law Rep. 1253 (Va. 1991). The conduct is clearly reckless in this case. In addition, there is the option to proceed under a negligent infliction theory. In Beach v. McKenney, 82 Va. Cir. 436, 2011 Va. Cir. LEXIS 156, the court stated:
In Hughes v. Moore, 214 Va. 27, 34, 197 S.E.2d 214 (1973), the Supreme Court held for the first time that mental anguish not caused by a direct physical injury will be recognized as a separate action, assuming that the plaintiff can establish certain elements: the defendant was negligent; such negligence was the direct and proximate cause of emotional distress; and the emotional distress naturally resulted in a physical injury; that is, a claim for negligent infliction of emotional distress is one where a plaintiff was not physically injured but experienced such emotional fright or shock that the emotional disturbance manifested itself in the form of physical injury. There are certain limited exceptions to the rule requiring a physical injury resulting from the emotional disturbance, which are narrowly applied. See Naccash v. Burger, 223 Va. 406, 290 S.E.2d 825 (1982) (allowing a claim for mental distress without physical manifestations in a wrongful birth suit); but see Myseros v. Sissler, 239 Va. 8, 9, n. 2, 387 S.E.2d 463, 464, n. 2, 6 Va. Law Rep. 935 (1990) (limiting Naccash to its facts).
Doctors may raise objections that liability could chill or curtail frank discussions among doctors and medical teams. This would be a bad case making bad law until these circumstances. One question is whether the hospital and state medical board will take actions against the doctors for this type of trash talking and unprofessional conduct.
What is particularly chilling is that this is an almost unique circumstance where a cellphone was brought into the surgery and left on. I expect that there is a great deal of gallows humor and juvenile remarks in surgeries. However, since no one hears the comments beyond the team, no one is in a position to sue. The question is whether there is sufficient “publication” on the medical team to cause harm. The emotional distress claim is best suited on that one element since it is the impact of the comments on the patient that is the relevant measure.
What do you think?