As the reader is no doubt aware, on September 4th of this past year legendary comedienne and red carpet host Joan Rivers tragically died during a medical procedure. She was 81 years old and reportedly in excellent health, making the death a shock and surprise to both her fans and her loved ones. Since then, the medical procedure and the professional staff who performed it have been under the legal microscope, as questions have been raised about medical negligence leading to Ms. River’s untimely demise.
As a brief review (we’ve covered medical malpractice lawsuits on this blog before), medical malpractice is essentially simply negligence committed by a medical professional. There are some wrinkles not found in non-medical negligence cases, most notably how to determine the standard of care owed to a patient. The clearest way to express this is to understand that not every negative medical outcome, up to and including death, is malpractice. Sometimes, procedures come with inherent risks, and a patient who understands those risks and chooses to undergo the procedure anyway in effect assumes said risks. As such, the issue in the Joan Rivers case, like many medical malpractice cases, is: would we expect death to be a significant and substantial risk of the procedure Ms. Rivers underwent?
A wrongful death lawsuit was filed in late January, and the complaint and supporting documentation provided some previously unknown details. The medical details are highly technical, as you would imagine, so it may help to simplify a bit. Ms. Rivers signed forms consenting to a few procedures, which were intended to assist in diagnosing her stomach reflux issues and sudden voice changes: an upper endoscopy, a possible (not unless necessary) biopsy, and a possible dilation of the esophagus. The lawsuit claims first that these were not the only procedures performed on Ms. Rivers. She could not have given consent to the other procedures, ergo, she could not have assumed the risk of said procedures. In medical malpractice law, this is known as the doctrine of informed consent, and you can read the New York statute addressing the doctrine here.
But the lawsuit actually goes further. Not only were additional procedures performed (for what are rumored to be extremely suspect reasons involving medical curiosity and publicity), but one of the doctors performing them is claimed not to have had privileges to perform surgery at the medical center where Ms. Rivers was being treated. As a result, this doctor left the room “when Ms. Rivers started to deteriorate” because she knew she was not supposed to be practicing surgery there in the first place. If true, this is a stunning breach of duty and care and displays a shocking lack of proper judgment from a licensed medical professional.
The lawsuit also alleges what we can think of as more garden-variety negligence: the doctors simply did not do what we would expect doctors of their training and experience to do in this situation, and severe injury (in this case, death) resulted from that failure. I encourage you to read this Washington Post article to see, step by step, how a fairly routine surgical procedure can become a tragedy, explained in easy to follow terms.
Taken as a whole, the suit is comprehensive, legally compelling, and devastating to the professionals involved. Claimed damages are in the millions, which does not seem unreasonable considering how Ms. Rivers up to the day of her death was considered an unstoppable workhorse. Bookmark our personal injury blog to check back for the latest news on the lawsuit, which may wind up heading to trial.