Joan Rivers and Alleged Medical Malpractice: 3 Things to Know

iStock_000015663601_Large.jpgJoan Rivers’ daughter is suing the New York clinic that treated the comedian in her final days, alleging medical malpractice in her mother’s treatment.

The 81-year-old Rivers died a week after suffering a loss of oxygen to the brain in August 2014 at Yorkville Endoscopy, where physicians were examining her throat and vocal cords. According to the lawsuit, the doctors caring for Rivers were not trained to deal with the airway obstruction, they failed to address her deteriorating vital signs, and they were even slow to call 911 for help.

“Moreover, the complaint says, the outpatient clinic allowed a doctor whose presence was unauthorized to twice conduct a procedure that Rivers had not consented to, a trans-nasal laryngoscopy, in which a scope is passed through sinus passages into the larynx,” a Reuters article stated. “It was during a repeat of that procedure, according to the lawsuit, that Rivers’ already dangerously low blood pressure and heart rate fell further as her airway became so constricted that she could no longer breathe. Apparently unaware at that point of Rivers’ declining condition, one doctor took out his cell phone and snapped photos of himself with the doctor performing the laryngoscopy on Rivers while she was sedated, the lawsuit said.”

This troubling case brings up a number of questions about medical malpractice cases, including:

  • What counts as malpractice? Medical malpractice or medical negligence comes in many forms, including operating on the wrong person, leaving a sponge or surgical tool inside a patient, or “distracted doctoring.” However, all medical malpractice cases hinge on negligence, the assertion that the medical professional breached his or her duty to a patient and acted in way that a reasonable professional would not have. In this particular case, the lawsuit alleges that the medical staff performed a procedure without consent, failed to respond to Rivers’ declining vital signs, were slow to call 911, and even took photos with Rivers in the operating room; it is hard to argue that these behaviors, if found to be true, do not rise to the level of negligence.
  • Why doesn’t the lawsuit specify the amount of damages? In the state of New York, claims of personal injury or wrongful death are not permitted to have a suggested damage amount. Therefore, it is left up to the judge or jury to determine what the damages should be, without being influenced by the amount sought by the plaintiff. According to New York Civil Practice Law Section 3017, the plaintiff’s complaint should “contain a prayer for general relief but shall not state the amount of damages to which the pleader deems himself entitled.”
  • What will this case come down to? Like many medical malpractice cases, it will most likely come down to a “battle of the experts.” The plaintiff and the defendants will each bring expert witnesses to the stand to discuss how a reasonable medical professional would have acted in the same situation.


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