Court Finds Hospital Relieved of Liability in Doctor's Death

, New York Law Journal

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New York-Presbyterian Hospital
New York-Presbyterian Hospital, Weill Medical College of Cornell University

A judge has removed New York-Presbyterian Hospital as defendant in a lawsuit filed by the estate of a resident physician who died from an overdose of a drug she apparently became addicted to while in the hospital's anesthesiology training program.

"Terrible circumstances" surrounded the May 2011 death of Dr. Janet Christophel, Manhattan Supreme Court Justice Alice Schlesinger (See Profile) found.

But she concluded in Christophel v. New York-Presbyterian Hospital/Weill Medical College of Cornell University, 154414/13, that a release Christophel signed allowing her to return to the residency program in November 2010 after two months of treatment for dependency on the drug Propofol relieved the hospital of responsibility for her subsequent death.

Propofol, an anesthesia medication, was one of the drugs found in pop star Michael Jackson's body following his 2009 death.

Christophel agreed in the release to several terms for her return to the residency program, including that she not take prohibited substances and submit to regular drug tests. It also said she agreed "to release and discharge the hospital, its trustees, agents, employees, and the hospital's medical staff" from any "claims, demands, obligations…expenditures, damages or causes of actions of any nature" arising out of the agreement.

Schlesinger ruled that she did not find the plaintiff's argument "in any way convincing" that the agreement was coercive or signed under duress.

"The fact is that Dr. Christophel, a highly educated woman, was being given the opportunity to rejoin the residency program and get on with her professional life," Schlessinger wrote. "There is nothing in these circumstances to suggest that Dr. Christophel did not fully understand what she was signing and/or that she felt forced into signing it."

Schlesinger added that the release "did not in any way put her in a disadvantageous position. It merely said, but important to the comfort level of the hospital, that no lawsuit could be brought that had anything to do with the decedent's reentry to the residency program."

Christophel returned to work on Nov. 9, 2010, while also continuing group sessions at Bridge Back to Life, a counseling treatment provider Christophel was referred to by the Workforce Health and Safety Clinic.

According to Schlesinger's ruling, Christophel was assigned to operating room responsibilities in March 2011 at Memorial Sloan Kettering Hospital, where, "unfortunately, her responsibilities allowed easy access to various anesthesia medications, including Propofol."

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