Court Sides With Medical Examiner in Suit Over Autopsy
By Joey Berlin


With the Texas Medical Association’s help, a Harris County medical examiner has won the latest battle in a lawsuit over an autopsy he performed following a woman’s 2007 shooting death.

In a decision released Thursday,  a three-judge panel in the  5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in New Orleans sided 2-1 with Darshan Phatak, MD, in a decision released Thursday, saying a district court hadn’t cited actual evidence when it decided against Dr. Phatak. 

Noel Dean sued Dr. Phatak in 2013 after murder charges against Mr. Dean in the death of his wife, Shannon, were dismissed. Thursday’s decision — which followed a friend-of-the-court brief supporting Dr. Phatak from TMA, the American Medical Association, the Texas Society of Pathologists, and others — kicks the case back to the district court.

Mr. Dean claimed his wife grabbed his gun out of a dresser drawer and fatally shot herself in July 2007. Dr. Phatak performed an autopsy and prepared a report stating that the cause of death was a homicide, leading to Mr. Dean’s arrest on a murder charge. But the doctor later changed his mind while testifying in Mr. Dean’s second murder trial, according to a Houston Chronicle report, testifying that Shannon Dean could have put the gun to her own head. The medical examiner changed the cause of death from homicide to “undetermined,” and prosecutors dropped the murder charge. 

Mr. Dean then sued Dr. Phatak, claiming the medical examiner had performed a biased autopsy “intentionally and/or with deliberate indifference” and allowed a police detective to influence the conclusions of the autopsy. Dr. Phatak denied conducting the autopsy improperly or issuing a false or police-influenced report. He also sought to dismiss the suit in 2017 based on the qualified immunity medical examiners have as government-employed physicians.

A U.S. district court declined to do so, saying Mr. Dean “put forth sufficient evidence to show intentional fabrication of evidence.” Dr. Phatak appealed to the 5th Circuit, where TMA and the other organizations submitted a brief saying the district court “should have examined Dr. Phatak’s actions for objective reasonableness, [but] it instead measured those actions based on the plaintiff’s unsupported conclusions” in the lawsuit papers he filed.

The appeals court essentially agreed with TMA in its decision released Thursday, sending the case back to the district court to reconsider the facts of the case against Dr. Phatak.

Last Updated On

December 21, 2018

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Joey Berlin

Associate Editor

(512) 370-1393

Joey Berlin is associate editor of Texas Medicine. His previous work includes stints as a reporter and editor for various newspapers and publishing companies, and he’s covered everything from hard news to sports to workers’ compensation. Joey grew up in the Kansas City area and attended the University of Kansas. He lives in Austin.

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