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Surgeon’s Life Sentence Unprecedented in U.S History, Experts Say

Operating Room

Victims harmed by a health care provider’s substandard care can seek justice and financial compensation by pursuing medical malpractice lawsuits, often over claims of medical negligence and preventable errors. However, providers may face more than civil lawsuits and liability. In some cases, physicians can be charged with crimes – and in at least one case, those criminal charges can stem solely from a provider’s substandard care.

As detailed by D Magazine, that’s precisely what happened to Christopher Duntsch, a former neurosurgeon from Plano, Texas who in 2017 was convicted of criminal assault by a Dallas County jury and sentenced to life in prison.

The verdict, preceded by years of investigation into the physician’s dozens of botched surgeries, two patient deaths, and multiple cases of paralysis, was the first time in U.S. history a physician was convicted over the quality of care provided inside the operating room.

Far Beyond the Accepted Standard of Care

Medical malpractice cases are notoriously complex and fact-specific, but are all hinged on a plaintiff’s ability to prove their damages were caused by a health care provider’s failure to meet accepted standards of their profession. If a physician, nurse, or other medical provider failed to act as a reasonably skilled and competent medical professional would have acted under the same or similar circumstances, patients harmed as a result may have viable claims for malpractice.

Breaching the “standard of care” is a cause for action for medical malpractice lawsuits, but it is not generally reason for a medical provider to face criminal charges. In Duntsch’s case, however, prosecutors claimed his patient outcomes were so poor, and his conduct so beyond the accepted standard of care, that it warranted criminal responsibility.

In July 2015, a Dallas County grand jury indicted Duntsch on five counts of aggravated assault, and one count of harming an elderly patient. Over the course of his trial, another jury was exposed to stories of more than 30 patients at four hospitals who were harmed by Duntsch – including one patient who bled to death during a surgical procedure, one who suffered a fatal stroke after an operation, and another – Duntsch’s best friend – who was left quadriplegic. During his sentencing, the jury also heard evidence regarding Duntsch’s erratic behavior and battle with substance abuse.

Medical Malpractice Lawsuits vs. Criminal Charges

As civil claims, malpractice lawsuits are handled in the civil justice system – which employs a different set of rules and procedures than in criminal cases, and uses a lower burden of proof: a preponderance of the evidence(meaning more likely than not) rather than beyond a reasonable doubt, the highest burden of proof in law.

While Duntsch’s story is one of extreme proportions, it illustrates the immense trust patients place in the hands of surgeons, as well as the providers who employ them. Many advocates and experts have agreed with prosecutors who claimed Duntsch continued to operate on patients despite having to know he was likely to harm them, but many more agreed that hospitals failed to do their due diligence when allowing Duntsch to join their team and continue operating, until it was too late.

While there are certainly arguments as to why a physician should or should not face criminal charges, the fact is that they at times are – though typically for intentional wrongful acts, such as sexual assault charges like those prosecutors are debating bringing against an Omaha Physician accused of touching female patients under anesthesia.

Attorney Dave Domina and Domina Law Group is currently representing one of those patients in a civil lawsuit against both the doctor and the orthopedic hospital which, rather than stopping him from performing surgery and referring the case to law enforcement, decided to conduct their own investigation using female patients as bait. As we argue, the doctor could have been stopped.

Though criminal accountability can be a difficult question when it concerns physicians and medical settings, patients harmed by health care professionals should understand that while criminal cases can provide additional closure for unacceptable, egregious, or intention wrongful acts, it is not as viable a source for compensation as civil claims, which can hold all parties involved accountable for allowing physicians with questionable track records, a history of complaints or poor patient outcomes, and pending investigations to continue causing harm.

If you have questions about a potential medical malpractice case in Omaha or the state of Nebraska, Domina Law Group is available to discuss your case personally. Contact us to request a consultation.