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New York court to decide if ethical breach equals malpractice

Most people are aware that if a physician or other health care provider commits a significant error that harms a patient, that professional, as well as the clinic or hospital where the error is committed, may be subject to a medical malpractice lawsuit. But what kinds of errors actually qualify? A case recently brought to the New York Court of Appeals seeks an answer to this question.

The case involves a woman who had an extramarital affair with her Long Island physician, an osteopath who was treating her for a gastrointestinal problem. After their nine-month affair ended in 2002, she wound up getting a divorce and later sued the doctor for medical malpractice. A court awarded the woman $166,000 in punitive damages, and an undisclosed amount for mental distress and economic loss. The doctor appealed, but the higher court upheld the verdict in a 3-1 vote.

In the latest appeal, the doctor's attorney argued that while his client's behavior was ethically questionable, the affair had nothing to do with her medical treatment and therefore shouldn't qualify as medical malpractice. But the woman's lawyer pointed out that the doctor had also prescribed medication for the woman's psychological conditions, including panic attacks and depression. While it's not unheard of for patients to develop feelings for their physicians or therapists, the affair went far beyond ordinary transference. The doctor used his medical authority and knowledge of her psychological condition to take advantage of her through their affair, her attorney said.

Does this mean that anyone who falls in love with a doctor or therapist can sue for malpractice when a relationship develops and things don't work out? What exactly constitutes medical harm, and should the blame fall entirely on the doctor? The New York Court of Appeals is expected to provide an answer to this question sometime next month. What do you think?

Source: The Wall Street Journal, "NY court weighs affair as medical malpractice," Oct. 17, 2012

· Our firm handles medical malpractice cases and a wide range of other personal injury issues. To learn more about our practice, visit our Newark medical malpractice page.

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