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- The Medical Professional's Code Of Conduct
- Is Patient Consent Adequate Defense?
- Sexual Assault Widespread In Medical Field
- Filing A Sexual Assault Lawsuit
Doctors have a duty to treat their patients with care and respect. In America, the doctor-patient relationship is sacred; patients expect to trust their physicians, along with everyone else who works in the doctor's office or hospital, with some of their deepest secrets.
But in recent years, the nation's headlines have been filled with horrific stories of physicians and nurses sexually assaulting their patients.
Sexual Assault In The Doctor's Office
Were you or a loved one sexually assaulted by a doctor, nurse or other medical professional? We believe your experience. We believe in you. Our experienced attorneys can help you step forward and fight back with confidence. No one should have to go through the horrible pain that many sexual abuse survivors experience every day. You are not alone, and you don't need to be afraid. We will vigorously prosecute your case to hold them accountable.
It's a deeply-disgusting trend that our experienced attorneys have watched develop over the last few decades. Sexual assault, without a doubt, is the gravest and most troubling violation of the duty that doctors owe to their patients. It's a deep violation of trust and safety. We defer to doctors for their expertise, relying on their expert judgment to treat and heal, not abuse and harm.
Inside the doctor's office, a space of confidentiality, we divulge things we would never tell anyone else, laying our lives bare in search of the best treatments and trusting our doctors to use their power for good. But that's not always what happens. Across the nation, doctors routinely abuse their privileged position of power to assault their patients, subjecting them to unnecessary and invasive "physical exams" - or worse.
Physicians Abuse Position Of Power
Some doctors even "groom" their patients, using physical examinations, and the intimate physical contact that an examination entails, to prepare their patients for deeply-invasive violations, from fondling and kissing to sexual intercourse. Psychiatrists use the intimacy of therapy sessions to seduce - or coerce - patients into romantic relationships.
Anesthesiologists put their patients under, then abuse them while they are insensible. In the examination room, physicians expose themselves in front of patients, inappropriately touch them and make sexually-explicit comments.
Sexual Abuse & Harassment: A Legal & Ethical Violation
These cases are all real and, if you have experienced similar misconduct, we believe you. There is no legitimate excuse for this form of misconduct. Due to the power imbalance between a doctor and his or her patients, sexual activity is always ethically questionable. Several states have made it illegal, a criminal offense, even in cases when the patient consents to the relationship. In many cases, sexual conduct of any sort can be the basis for a medical malpractice lawsuit. Physicians have a legal duty to maintain a professional working relationship with their patients. Obviously, sexual misconduct is outside the bounds of a professional relationship.
Patient Consent Is No Defense
That's true even if the patient consented to the sexual relationship; any and all sexual conduct is considered malpractice in a court of law. This is an ethical line that physicians are not allowed to cross. Every physician is fully aware that sexual activity should never occur with a patient.
Just like doctors, hospitals have a legal duty to protect patients from harm. While most of us believe that a hospital's duty begins and ends with medical care, it actually extends to cover instances of sexual assault and abuse. Hospitals and medical clinics should do their utmost to ensure that patients are receiving the most-professional medical care possible.
Why Aren't Abusive Doctors Punished?
Yet year after year, we hear stories of hospitals and universities that fail to do so. Doctors with a history of abusing patients are re-hired at new clinics without adequate background checks. Anesthesiologists with known problems are left alone with patients - just because no one has the bravery to stand up and do the right thing.
Co-workers stay silent, fearing retaliation and professional exile. Hospitals conceal reports of sexual misconduct, hoping to avoid public criticism and professional censure. Physicians are allowed to retire from their positions quietly, without a report to the police, or escape past misconduct by slipping over state lines and setting up a new practice. And victims, who have been violated in an unconscionable way, often fear stepping forward, believing that no one will believe their word over that of a doctor. We believe you.
Sexual Assault Widespread In Medical Field, Investigation Finds
The Atlanta Journal-Constitution has performed invaluable work in chronicling these cases, bringing horrendous cases of doctor sexual abuse to light.
65-year-old Dr. Philip Leonard is still allowed to practice out of his Austin, Texas neurology clinic, even after being accused of sexual misconduct by 17 different women. Leonard was censured in 2004, but the restriction on his practice - that he would only see male patients for 10 years - ended in 2014.
In a series of new civil lawsuits, Dr. George Tyndall, a former gynecologist at the University of Southern California, is accused of being a "serial sexual predator." At least nine women say they were sexually abused by Tyndall, now retired, during physical examinations at the school. USC "actively and deliberately" hid the pattern of assault from law enforcement professionals and the university community, the suits claim.
Today, Dr. Jacob Ward is practicing in the suburbs of Atlanta, but in 2011, he was arrested and convicted for molesting a female patient during a physical examination. Two prior allegations against Ward were never communicated to patients, because the medical board chose to send him a confidential letter explaining its "concern" about his conduct, rather than censure him publicly.
But what the paper discovered is even more shocking.
States Fail To Discipline Doctors After Sex Abuse Complaints
The Journal-Constitution's investigation began in Georgia, where 2 out of every 3 doctors disciplined for sexual misconduct were allowed to continue practicing. It's 3 out of 4 in Alabama, and 4 out of 5 in Minnesota.
Digging further, the paper found that physician sexual abuse is widely unacknowledged, even within the medical field. Doctors just don't want to address the fact that sexual assault can, and does, occur in the examination room.
Misconduct "Tolerated" Among Physicians
Even worse, sexual abuse, the reporters write, is "tolerated" in every state of the nation, where medical licensing boards, staffed by physicians, frequently hide sexual misconduct reports in "vague" language or handle assault reports behind closed doors. Only 11 states require medical facilities to report sexual assault complaints to the police when they involve an adult patient.
In many states, doctors are allowed to retain their medical licenses, even after a sexual assault compliant has been investigated and confirmed. In a review of the records of 2,400 physicians who were publicly disciplined for sexual misconduct across the nation, the Journal-Constitution learned that half had retained their medical licenses and were still allowed to practice.
Docs Get Treatment, Not Jail Time
Doctors who abuse their patients, even those who rape, are treated as deviant personalities who require treatment and rehabilitation, not criminal prosecution. Therapy centers take disciplined doctors through equine therapy, yoga and art classes. Some physicians attend "boundary" classes at local community colleges. Then, the doctors are cleared to practice again.
Medical Boards Hide Proceedings Behind Closed Doors
Medical boards often handle sexual abuse complaints in secret, fearful that a public investigation will lead to the unintended consequence of fewer reports. Some doctors have been receiving private and confidential warnings from their medical licensing board for years, all while the physician is allowed to practice medicine as if nothing untoward has happened. To these authorities, it's a matter of protecting the physician's reputation, rather than protecting patients. "This tendency on the part of medical boards and medical officials to err on the side of quiet suspension or a secret, out-of-court deal, that's a recipe for disaster," says David Clohessy, executive director at SNAP, a national advocacy center for victims of sexual abuse. "Secrecy is the enemy," Clohessy continued. "Crimes are crimes, no matter who commits them. They need to be reported to and investigated by and prosecuted by the independent professionals in law enforcement. Period. Not a panel of your peers, not by some committee of supervisors and not by other people who have earned the same titles you have earned."
A Deep Violation Of Medical Ethics
Sexual assault is a deep violation of medical ethics. Some states have even made it against the law for a doctor to have a sexual relationship with a patient, whether or not the patient consents. Even in states where it's not explicitly illegal, sexual misconduct is against the "code" of the medical profession.
Medical authorities around the world acknowledge this fact. The American Medical Association states this principle very clearly, writing that "sexual contact that occurs concurrent with the patient-physician relationship constitutes sexual misconduct."
Thus any form of sexual contact, whether consensual or nonconsensual, should be considered misconduct, a violation of the physician's ethical code.
Power Dynamics & Coercion
There is a strong and irresolvable power dynamic between doctors and their patients. We turn to doctors with trust in our hearts. We go to them to keep us healthy, or heal us when we are ill. We trust in their judgment in matters of life and death.
And we place a great deal of stock in their credentials and experience. In this context, there is no excuse for beginning a sexual relationship with a patient, let alone propositioning, harassing or assaulting him or her.
It is inexcusable, even when the patient appears to have consented to the sexual conduct. Strong power dynamics often erode our capacity to provide consent. As the American Medical Association writes, "sexual harassment exploits inequalities in status and power [and] abuses the rights and trust of those who are subjected to such conduct." Doctor sexual assault is coercion, plain and simple.
Sexual Conduct Between Patients & Doctors Is Malpractice
Doctors owe us a duty of care. They owe us the duty to provide medical care by following the standards established in the field. When they violate this duty, exploiting our trust to commit atrocities, it's malpractice. The prohibition against sexual contact within the medical field is well-established and universally agreed-upon. It's not a matter of debate.
As such, there can be little doubt that doctors who violate their code by maintaining any form of sexual contact with a patient (whether through unwelcome sexual advances, requesting sexual favors, bargaining for sex through the offering of drugs or outright sexual assault) have committed malpractice and can be held accountable in a civil lawsuit.
Are All Doctor Sex Assault Lawsuits Filed As Malpractice Suits?
Some are filed on the tort theory of assault and battery. Assault and battery, in the area of civil law, are actually two separate offenses committed against a person. Assault is the act of intentionally making another person fear an imminent and harmful contact. Battery is making good on that threat, actually coming into contact with the person in a harmful and nonconsensual manner.
The important thing to note now, however, is that assault and battery are torts of intent, offenses that carry some level of intention on the part of the perpetrator. Some doctor sexual assault lawsuits, on the other hand, take the form of a malpractice claim. These are claims of negligence, and require proof of a careless disregard for the safety and wellbeing of others. Often, attorneys choose to file a malpractice suit under these circumstances because the doctor's defense team is expected to treat the claim as a malpractice claim.
It also makes pairing multiple claims against multiple defendants easier. Many of these civil cases aren't just filed against the doctor who assaulted a patient. Claims can also be filed against the hospital or medical clinic where the doctor worked, because medical facilities have a duty to supervise their physician-employees adequately. These cases, based on the theory of negligence, are likely to be treated as malpractice claims. Your attorney will craft the best strategy for your own claim.
Can I File A Lawsuit Against My Doctor?
Many sexual assault survivors take the courageous step of filing a personal injury lawsuit against the doctor who abused them. Needless to say, this is a deeply personal choice that can be extremely painful. Many victims are understandably fearful that, if the facts of their case again come to light, they will be victimized all over again.
It would be a lie to say that preparing and pursuing a lawsuit is a process free of pain, but we've also seen how much good filing a lawsuit can do in a survivor's life. It can be an empowering experience, one that allows survivors the opportunity to take control of this terrible situation. Legal action is also often the only way that abusive doctors and their employers will ever be punished.
Forcing Doctors To Face Justice
We've already documented the lax regulations that allow dangerous sexual predators to remain in practice long after they should have been disbarred from the field of medicine. Staffed by their peers, medical licensing boards often "go easy" on doctors who abuse their patients, giving them a light slap on the wrists when jail time is more appropriate.
Some medical boards even hide allegations of sexual misconduct from the public, allowing doctors who have committed horrendous crimes to broker backroom deals instead of facing the harsh light of criticism.
Civil Litigation Empowers Survivors
Most physicians just don't want to face up to the facts, so they hide them. Civil litigation, on the other hand, is a fair and transparent process. Survivors get their day in court. And abusive physicians are forced to answer for their actions in the public record.
In some cases, a successful civil lawsuit even triggers disciplinary action against a doctor, as medical licensing boards catch up to the civil courts.
For all these reasons and more, we believe that pursuing civil litigation is an important step in the fight against sexual predators. No one should be allowed to use their privileged position of power to harm others. No doctor who abuses his or her patients should be allowed to continue violating patients. Filing a civil lawsuit is often the first step in ensuring that patients in the future are treated with respect and dignity.
Can I File A Lawsuit Against The Hospital Or Clinic?
As we've already mentioned, every hospital and medical clinic in the country has a legal obligation to ensure that patients are being treated with care and respect. Every medical clinic should have strong policies in place to screen out dangerous doctors from the hiring process and properly supervise a physician's conduct as he or she works.
Thorough background checks should be performed for each doctor and, ideally, renewed on an annual or bi-annual basis. Hospitals should also make a thorough review of malpractice complaints that have been filed against the doctor, and check in with the state's medical licensing board to identify any disciplinary action that has been taken against the physician in the past.
Obviously, there are many ways a hospital or medical clinic can ensure they are hiring only professional doctors with clean public records. At the same time, medical facilities should do their utmost to investigate sexual assault complaints after they arise.
Hospital & Medical Clinic Negligence Claims
Unfortunately, many hospitals fail to uphold their sworn obligations. We've heard numerous stories of hospitals who failed to perform background checks, hiring dangerous sexual predators and allowing them into the examination room with patients.
We've even litigated cases in which medical clinics violated their duty to care for patients by concealing sexual abuse reports against a physician from a medical licensing board. Any violation of this nature can serve as the basis for a negligence suit against the medical facility.
Are Hospitals Required To Report Sexual Abuse?
We believe that all reports of sexual assault, whether they involve doctors or members of the general public, should be forwarded to law enforcement officials as soon as possible. But hospitals aren't always legally obligated to do so.
State laws vary on whether medical professionals are required to report their suspicions about sexual assault when the potential crime involves a competent adult victim.
Barriers To Reporting
In most states, victims of sexual assault will have to report the crime to the appropriate authorities themselves, which can be difficult.
Many assault survivors fear that they will not be believed, or worse, will be victim-shamed, especially going up against a "trusted" medical professional. Other victims struggle with feelings of shame and embarrassment, believing that they did something wrong and somehow deserved their mistreatment.
You did not bring this on your self. You are not at fault. This is not your fault; you were victimized by someone you trusted to help you. There is no question who the aggressor is in this situation. You were wronged, and reporting the abuse to the police is the right thing to do.
Why You Should Consider Reporting The Assault To The Police
Outside of filing a civil lawsuit, reporting the crime to the police is the only way to see justice done. And since around two-thirds of doctors who are reported for sexual misconduct are never disciplined by medical licensing boards, it's often the only way that physicians who abuse their position of power will ever face consequences for their actions.
Reporting the crime can also serve to light the way for other survivors. When one person steps forward, more victims tend to follow. That's a very important and powerful thing to do, since as we've seen so often, many of these physicians have multiple victims. It's not uncommon for the police to learn about one sexual assault report, only to be inundated later by a number of other complaints against the same doctor. But it takes that first courageous individual to start the process.