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New York Supreme Court rules in case of doctor's overdose death

The New York Supreme Court has dismissed a lawsuit against New York Presbyterian Hospital filed by the estate of one of its doctors who committed suicide using propofol. The 2011 suicide came less than a year after the anesthesiology resident finished a hospital-affiliated rehabilitation program for addiction to the substance. After completing the 6-week program, she was allowed to return to work, and eventually to duty in the operating room, where she had "easy access" to the drug. Two months later, she announced that she was going to be resigning. The next day, she killed herself with a propofol overdose.

The state supreme court ruled that New York Presbyterian was not guilty of hospital negligence because when she returned to work following rehab, the doctor signed a release form that waived the hospital of responsibility for any "causes of action of any nature whatsoever." In addition to this essentially blanket indemnification of the hospital, by signing the release, the doctor agreed to stay in treatment, to refrain from use of "inappropriate drugs" and to undergo drug testing if requested. Based on the terms of this release, the court determined that the facility could not be legally faulted for the woman's death.

The doctor's estate the estate contended that the signature had not been witnessed, and alleged that it might not be her signature. However, no handwriting expert was called in to back up that contention. That was an omission noted by the court in its ruling. The court also noted that it had been to the doctor's benefit to sign the form so that she could continue her career, and the hospital had given her "the opportunity to get on with her professional life."

Going up against a hospital, particularly one with the size and reputation of New York Presbyterian is not an easy task. As evidenced by the terms of the release this doctor signed, most large medical facilities have a team of lawyers whose job it is to protect the hospital and its personnel from litigation. However, hospitals are regularly held legally responsible for causing harm. People who believe that they have a case of medical malpractice or hospital negligence should not be intimidated by the resources they may be up against. They can and should consult an attorney to review their options and determine the best course of action.

Source: Outpatient Surgery, "Hospital Wasn't Negligent in Anesthesiology Resident's Propofol Suicide" Jim Burger, Dec. 19, 2013

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