A civil rights ruling against a Houston physician exposes medical examiners and other government-employed physicians to undue liability lawsuits, and should be overturned, according to a brief filed by TMA and other groups.
TMA filed an amicus brief with the U.S. Fifth District Court of Appeals in support of Darshan Phatak, MD, who was named in a civil rights lawsuit that hinges in part on his autopsy in a 2007 fatal shooting.
The district court ruling would significantly damage the ability of forensic pathologists and other physicians to act independently, and it provides back channels and lower standards for medical professional lawsuits, the brief says.
The brief was filed along with the American Medical Association, the National Association of Medical Examiners, the College of American Pathologists, and the Texas Society of Pathologists.
The lawsuit was brought forward by Noel Dean, who was tried twice for murder in the shooting death of his wife, Shannon, in Houston. His 2009 trial ended in a hung jury, and the charges were eventually dropped in 2011.
Mr. Dean filed the civil rights lawsuit in 2013 against the county's top two medical examiners — including Dr. Phatak — Harris County, the city of Houston, and the Houston Police Department's lead investigator on the case.
The district court denied Dr. Phatak's request to dismiss many of the charges against him. "Dean has presented enough evidence from which a reasonable juror could conclude that [the physician] performed his autopsy report in a manner that was tantamount to falsification of evidence," the court said in its ruling.
The district court did dismiss the charges for all other parties named in the suit.
In its brief, TMA and the other groups argue that the lower court's ruling improperly relied on Mr. Dean's alleged version of the facts rather than on actual evidence.
Dr. Phatak's actions "reflected careful consideration of observations to form a medical opinion, and not cunning and calculation to pin a murder on the plaintiff," the groups said. "A disagreement with … medical opinion is no reason to conclude that he falsified an autopsy report."
The district court, therefore, failed to afford the physician qualified immunity, which allows government medical examiners — and any other publicly employed physician — to make medical opinions based on experience and training and not on public pressure or fear of repercussions, according to the brief.
"Under established standards, the district court should have considered whether Dr. Phatak violated a clearly established law, which was particularized to the circumstances of the case," the brief said. Instead, the court ruled that Mr. Dean's right to freedom from wrongful prosecution was violated.
Without a reasonable connection between Dr. Phatak's actions and a violation of clearly established laws — as is required under U.S. Supreme Court rulings — medical examiners and other publicly employed physicians will not be able to anticipate which actions might open them up to personal liability, the brief said. If that were to happen, an examiner might practice defensive medicine — performing needless tests before determining that a death is a homicide — or avoid classifying anything as a homicide, the groups argue.
"Both … hurt medicine and thus harm the public, medical professionals, and the integrity of the justice system," the brief said. "This court should overturn the district court’s decision and afford Dr. Phatak qualified immunity for his sake and for the sake of all physicians’ independent medical judgments."
Action, May 15, 2017