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Medical Battery Claim Dismissed by 1st Circuit

By Jonathan R. Tung, Esq. on December 23, 2015 | Last updated on March 21, 2019

The Court of Appeals for the First Circuit affirmed a lower court's dismissal of a battery claim against a doctor who allegedly failed to properly inform his patient of the attendant risks of a surgical procedure.

The case of Bradley v. Sugarbaker has a number of legal issues within it, but we'll focus on the plaintiff's theory of battery against the operating doctor.

The 2002 Crash and Scan

Mrs. Bradley, a law librarian, was involved in a car accident in 2002. She suffered from pain and shortness of breath and underwent an MRI in 2004. The scan revealed a potentially cancerous growth on her right lung. She was later scheduled for a variety of medical procedures to deduce the nature of the growth including a Fine-Needle-Aspiration (FNA) biopsy. Dr. Sugarbaker, the operating doctor, said that the procedures were necessary in order to find out what the growth was.

Bradley never received the FNA. Instead, Bradley had a number of samples taken from her in an invasive fashion, including a sixth procedure that involved the removal of the growth from her lung as well as some attached healthy tissue. All six tests confirmed that Bradley was cancer free.

However, Bradley suffered from a fungal infection and a collapsed lung in the region where the growth was removed. She continues to take anti-fungals today. She brought suit in federal district court and that court dismissed her theory of battery against Dr. Sugarbaker.

In Massachusetts, courts analyze medical battery claims under two theories: "lack of consent" and "lack of informed consent." The court relied on previous court case law to make the fine line distinctions between the two. While battery is very much a question of unauthorized harmful touching, lack of informed consent cases are "better understood as sounding in negligence." The First Circuit Court took the more modern view that lack of consent cases are more properly thought of instances in which the physician failed to properly inform the patient of all the potential risks -- falling below the appropriate standard.

Plaintiff's Argument, in a Nutshell

Ms. Bradley's battery claim unfortunately rested on the contention that had failed her in the lower courts: that her case was simply a simple battery case as legally indistinguishable from one somebody slaps someone across the face. The court disagreed. Another theory that she attempted was a more nuanced theory of battery that focused on Dr. Sugarbaker's supposed stepping outside his allowed scope. Ms. Bradley had, to her understanding, given Sugarbaker consent to remove "little snippets of the mass," but he had removed the growth alongside a large portion of healthy lung tissue.

Had the court agreed to analyze this case as a one of battery, Bradley would still not have prevailed in this court. After all, there was a "logical nexus" between the removal of the growth (and healthy tissue) and Dr. Sugarbaker's eventual diagnosis.

But the court steadfastly applied Massachusetts's law and treated her case as one of uninformed-consent -- a negligence theory. Under this analysis, Dr. Sugarbaker did meet the applicable standard of care by disclosing all of the attendant risks to Ms. Bradley; and he could not be held accountable for her erroneous assumptions that only small portions of the mass would be removed. He never affirmatively said that this would be the case.

Potential patients would do well to understand which applicable theory will be applied to their case should they choose to bring a med-mal case in their state. The foregoing facts should prompt a patient to ask: when is a battery really a negligent action?

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