Posted May 15, 2020. To settle a pandemic-related financial crisis at UMass Dartmouth, law faculty are not receiving research compensation in summer 2020. I will be away from my desk, May 16 to August 15. Blog posts will be sparse, and I will not receive email. On the upside, summer 🌞! If you need to reach me, please send a message through the faculty assistants’ office (Ms. Cain and Ms. Rittenhouse). Stay thirsty.

Friday, April 3, 2020

Battery, IIED in play if medical staff ignore patient's 'stop,' court rules

Medical professionals may be liable for battery and intentional infliction of emotional distress for failing to heed a patient's withdrawal of consent, a Massachusetts Appeals Court reversal warned in February.

Brigham and Women's Hospital is a teaching hospital
of Harvard Medical School in Boston.
Photo by trepulu CC BY-NC-ND 2.0 (2010).
According to the appellate court opinion, evidence in the case supported the plaintiffs' disputed claim that terminally ill cancer patient Donna Zaleskas begged staff at Brigham and Women's Hospital to stop X-rays of her leg because of her physical discomfort, but that X-ray technicians proceeded anyway.  On behalf of Zaleskas, who succumbed to cancer, survivors are suing the hospital for battery and intentional infliction of emotional distress, upon the theory that Zaleskas withdrew consent.  The Superior Court awarded summary judgment to the defense, and the Appeals Court reversed and remanded.

Thirty-seven-year-old decedent Zaleskas was a personal injury and product liability attorney in New York and alumna of Boston College Law School.

A finer line than one might expect separates theories of negligence and battery in many medical malpractice cases.  When a medical professional touches or otherwise physically treats a patient without, or beyond the scope of, the patient's consent, the action can simultaneously satisfy the test for intentional battery—defendant intentionally effecting physical contact that is unwanted by the complainant—and negligence—defendant's failure to comport with the standard of care of a reasonable professional under the circumstances.  Consent is an affirmative defense to intentional torts, like assumption of risk is a defense to negligence, but scope of consent often presents a thorny question of controverted fact.  Of course, patients with the benefit of hindsight are ill inclined to suppose that they consented to physical contact that caused harm, so intentional tort claims are often rationally articulable alongside accident claims in medmal lawsuits.

In the interest of doctrinal clarity, courts often, and in some jurisdictions, upon some facts, must, channel cases into a distinct rubric for "medical malpractice" that sits under or alongside the negligence umbrella, regardless of whether the case might be characterized as intent or accident.  That's a modern trend.  Massachusetts is more permissive in preserving conventional claims in intentional torts in medmal when the facts fit the bill.  The difference can be important in different dimensions.  A defendant's insurer might deny coverage, under policy terms, for intentional torts.  At the same time, intentional torts may give a plaintiff access to greater, even punitive, damage awards.

The Appeals Court ruled Zaleskas's claim fit for hearing in the intentional tort framework.  The court wrote plainly, "We now hold that if a patient unambiguously withdraws consent after medical treatment has begun, and if it is medically feasible to discontinue treatment, continued treatment following such a withdrawal may give rise to a medical battery claim."  In the instant case, "a reasonable jury could find that saying stop or words to that effect, in the particular factual context at issue, was sufficient to withdraw consent."

The court ruled furthermore, to the plaintiffs' advantage, "that consent to have one's body touched or positioned for an X-ray is not a matter beyond the common knowledge or experience of a layperson and does not require expert medical testimony."

The case is Zaleskas v. Brigham & Women's Hosp., No. 18-P-1076 (Mass. App. Ct. Feb. 11, 2020) (Justia). Justice Henry wrote for a unanimous panel with Rubin and Wendlandt, JJ.

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