In an important decision for patients who have been injured or killed by medical malpractice, the highest court in New York has held that it will not tolerate the act of altering and destroying records to avoid liability.
This ruling came in a medical malpractice case where a doctor destroyed her original handwritten office notes after the patient died and after she received a request for medical records from the patient’s attorney.
The case grows out of the death of six-year-old Claudialee Gomez Nicanor. The child had type 1 diabetes and died from diabetic ketoacidosis (a condition that develops when the body can’t produce enough insulin). She was sent by her pediatrician to be seen and treated by pediatric endocrinologist, Dr. Arlene B. Mercado.
A New York jury first found that Dr. Mercado failed to properly teach Claudialee’s family about the symptoms of diabetes and failed to recommend that Claudialee’s family perform home testing to measure the child’s blood sugar and ketones. In other words, the jury found that Dr. Mercado had committed malpractice. The jury then went on to find that Dr. Mercado maliciously destroyed her handwritten notes pertaining to her examinations of the child after receiving a letter from plaintiff’s attorney. The jury awarded punitive damages against Mercado in the sum of $7,500,000, for destroying the records. Appellate courts later reduced the award to $1,200,000, and then to $500,000.
The issue of first impression was whether a plaintiff may recover punitive damages for a medical professional’s act of altering or destroying medical records in an effort to evade potential medical malpractice liability. The doctor’s attorneys argued that since the child’s family had prevailed on the underlying medical malpractice case, they had not really incurred any harm. The court said letting Dr. Mercado off the hook on that basis would only embolden other medical professionals who might fear malpractice liability to alter or destroy medical records.
It is an important message to send out to the medical community where we suspect records are altered or destroyed all too often.
The case is Gomez v. Cabatic.
Hat tip to New York Personal Injury Law Blog for bringing this case to our attention.