Patients should have every confidence when they see a doctor, dentist, surgeon, or other health care provider that they’ll be treated with professionalism, respect, and dignity. If a patient is sexually assaulted by a healthcare provider, it’s more than a violation of one’s body, the provider’s professional ethics, or even the law. It’s a major breach of the significant trust central to the patient-provider relationship.
It is important for victimized patients to understand: It is NOT your fault. Even in cases where some degree of attraction may be mutual, the power imbalance between patients and providers puts the onus firmly on the health care provider to draw clear personal boundaries. If those lines are crossed, the provider may be held to account by their employer, professional licensing board, and (where applicable) criminal prosecutors. Impacted patients can also seek accountability through the civil court system. There may be potential claims made directly against the provider as well as their employer and/or the facility where the assault or abuse occurred.
As longtime advocates for Florida victims of sexual assault, our West Palm Beach sexual abuse lawyers provide survivors with insight on their legal options. It’s worth noting that civil cases can be pursued regardless of whether the state or federal government decides to pursue criminal charges.
In recent months, there have been a number of sickening stories of patient sexual assaults in health care settings, with accused perpetrators being health care workers who took an oath to do no harm.
Patient-Provider Relationships Create Power Disparity, Meaning Patients Can’t Consent
Relationships between patients and healthcare providers involve an inherent power disparity. Patients cannot give meaningful consent to romantic relationships or sexual acts with someone who is also their healthcare provider. That includes surgeons, doctors, nurses, CNAs, etc. Health care workers have a professional, ethical, and sometimes legal duty to ensure clear boundaries are drawn to prevent sexual encounters of any kind from occurring between them and their patients.
Violation of this ethical code may lead not only to professional discipline (license suspension, revocation, fines, etc.), but also criminal charges. They can also face civil repercussions for intentional torts. Additionally, health care employers and facilities can be sued in civil court for failing to protect the patient or improperly supervising or hiring the healthcare worker/perpetrator. Vicarious liability may apply if the healthcare worker was a direct employee (as opposed to a contractor), in which case the employer’s negligence is not relevant so long as the plaintiff shows the alleged acts occurred in the course and scope of employment.
A few recent examples of sexual assault in Florida health care settings:
- A cosmetic doctor in Naples allegedly used “laughing gas” anesthesia on at least two patients before sexually assaulting them, police say. Both patients reportedly awoke from sedation to realize the doctor was sexually battering them. Authorities believe there were likely more victims. Not long after his arrest, the doctor reportedly committed suicide. Lawyers representing the victims are now collaborating in their claims, which are still ongoing against his estate.
- A nurse in Pinellas County was accused of sexually assaulting an older patient with a mental disability who was living in a rehabilitation center. Another staff member reportedly walked in when an assault was occurring.
- A dentist in Pensacola was arrested several times this year in connection with allegations that he sexually assaulted 17 women – patients and employees – over the last few years.
- A Daytona Beach certified registered nurse anesthetist was accused of trapping a woman in an on-call room of the hospital and committing sexual battery.
These violations of patient trust are traumatizing, and victims should know that they may have viable means of legal recourse.
Your Rights as a Patient
Anytime you are a patient in a medical setting, you have certain rights as a patient. This of course includes the right NOT to be subjected to sexual assault, battery, or harassment. But it’s important to point out that if something makes you even a little uncomfortable, it is perfectly reasonable to voice those concerns and/or request another layer of protection.
As outlined by RAINN, in a medical setting you as a patient have the right to:
- End the exam at absolutely any time.
- Request a third person be in the room for an exam. That may be another nurse, or a friend, family member, etc.
- Have privacy (closed doors, curtains closed, etc.) during any medical exams or consultations, as well as while undressing/dressing.
- Only undress to your comfort. And if the exam concerns only your upper body, you shouldn’t need to undress the bottom half.
- Ask for an examiner of a different gender. (This may need to be done in advance, and options may be limited in an emergency, but in general, you do have a choice about this.)
- Get answers to your questions. The person examining you should be able to tell you exactly what they’re doing, why they’re doing it, and what you can expect during the exam/procedure. You can also stop them at any point.
If a healthcare worker refuses to answer your questions, tells you to be quiet, examines private areas without gloves, refuses to tell you what they are doing, won’t allow you to have a third-party in the room, insists you undress areas of your body that aren’t being examined, or presses you for sexual information that isn’t relevant – these are all big red flags.
If you have suffered sexual abuse, assault, or battery while being treated by a healthcare provider, our dedicated, compassionate team of civil trial lawyers can explain your legal options.
Contact the South Florida personal injury attorneys at Halberg & Fogg PLLC by calling toll-free at 1-877-425-2374. Serving West Palm Beach, Miami, Tampa, Orlando and Fort Myers/ Naples. There is no fee unless you win.
More Blog Entries:
Florida Civil Sexual Abuse Lawsuits May Encounter Victim-Blaming Defenses, Sept. 22, 2022, West Palm Beach Sexual Abuse Lawyer Blog