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Do Texas surgeons need to fear criminal prosecution for mistakes?

A Texas surgeon has made legal history, but not in a good way: As far as anyone knows, he's the first doctor ever to be charged criminally for surgical mistakes.

Is this something that every surgeon needs to now worry about, or was there something particularly special about this case?

There was, in fact, something very special about this case. Surgeons—even those who make foolish mistakes—are unlikely to start facing criminal juries anytime soon unless they first advertise their intentions to become a "cold-blooded killer" before they start on a spree of surgeries with bizarre, or maybe brazen, "mistakes."

The surgeon, nicknamed "Dr. Death" by the press, was found guilty of intentionally causing injury to an elderly person and sentenced to life in prison.

Former patients and prosecutors believe that's the only way to stop the surgeon from ever hurting anyone again. They believe the surgeon saw the Texas health care system as a "cash cow" and saw himself as above the law, able to do whatever he wanted to his patients without fear of reprisal.

Aside from calling himself a "cold-blooded killer," the surgeon openly referred to himself as a god. In at least one case, he lied and told a patient's family that he'd found a tumor in order to cover up his crimes in the operating room. Ultimately, that's the sort of activity that moved the case into criminal court.

While it's unlikely that there's going to be a rush to criminally charge and prosecute surgeons who make mistakes, even bad ones, other surgeons should take some lessons from the case:

-- If you have a rash of accidents inside the surgery room within a short period of time, stop and seek help for whatever is causing the problem. Don't continue to operate. That could open you up to criminal charges of acting "intentionally, knowingly, recklessly, or with criminal negligence."

For example, if you have a hidden drug problem and it's caused complications, stop operating until you get help.

-- Don't attempt to lie to cover up what you've done. As in this case, that could be considered a strong indicator that you knew what you had done was wrong and were acting out of a guilty knowledge.

If you are afraid that something you've done is about to result in criminal charges, contact a criminal defense attorney immediately to discuss the situation.

Source: Healthcare.dmagazine.com, "Victim of Christopher Duntsch: The Difference Between Malpractice and Criminal Negligence Was Simple," Olivia Nguyen, Feb. 22, 2017

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