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Last week the story of Tiffany Ingham, an anesthesiologist who insulted a patient while he was undergoing a colonoscopy, flooded the web and mainstream media.  Ingham had been inadvertently recorded during the procedure, and she was captured calling the man a “retard,” a “wuss,” threatening to assault him, and implying that he had syphilis and tuberculosis.

The recording came out along with allegations of falsifying medical records and instructing an assistant to lie to the patient.

Jury awards $500,000 in malpractice and punitive damages

During a three-day medical malpractice trial, jurors heard the evidence against Ingham.  After deliberating, the jury awarded the patient $500,000, including $200,000 in punitive damages.  Punitive damages, in contrast to compensatory damages, can be awarded in some jurisdictions as a way of punishing the defendant and deterring future bad behavior, rather than simply making the plaintiff whole for his damages.  Importantly, liability insurance typically does not cover punitive damages, so the actual wrongdoer is responsible for paying that money to the plaintiff.

No punitive damages in Michigan

Michigan law generally does not allow plaintiffs to receive punitive damages in civil litigation.  If Ingham had been practicing in our state, the patient’s financial recovery would be limited to the $200,000 awarded for malpractice and $100,000 awarded for suggesting he had syphilis and tuberculosis.  Ingham and her employer would be covered by insurance, so they would not have any direct financial accountability for their conduct.  It’s also possible the jury would not have been allowed to hear the entire recording – only the specific references to syphilis and tuberculosis.

Punitive damages are an important element of the civil justice system that helps deter unacceptable behavior by people entrusted with our care and safety.  When unscrupulous doctors – or motorists, or property owners – are not held directly responsible for their conduct, the risk of future incidents is increased.

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