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Hospital Wasn't Negligent in Anesthesiology Resident's Propofol Suicide

Aware of her struggle with propofol addiction, hospital had resident sign a release.

Published: December 19, 2013

She was an anesthesiology resident at New York Presbyterian Hospital with a propofol addiction. She spent 6 weeks in rehabilitation before returning to work. The day before she took her life by overdosing on propofol, she told her director she planned to resign. Was the hospital responsible for Janet Y. Christophel's death?

No, the hospital couldn't be held responsible for the propofol-overdose-related death of one of its residents, because the resident had signed a comprehensive release that indemnified the hospital from all "causes of action of any nature whatsoever," a court has ruled.

In dismissing the case against New York-Presbyterian Hospital, the Supreme Court of New York rejected arguments that the resident's signature was unwitnessed and possibly inauthentic, that the document was ambiguous and that refusing to hold the hospital responsible would go against public policy.

Dr. Christophel committed suicide with the drug in May 2011. In September 2010, she'd sought help from the program director of New York-Presbyterian's Weill Medical College of Cornell University. After completing a 6-week rehabilitation program, she was cleared to return to work.

A few months later she was given OR responsibilities, where she again gained easy access to propofol. Two months after that, on the day before she took her life, she told the director she planned to resign.

Her estate argued that the hospital had been negligent.

The signed release, which was executed when Dr. Christophel returned to work after her rehab stint, included 8 provisions. Along with indemnifying the hospital, it included agreements to abide by her treatment plan, not to use any inappropriate drugs and to submit to testing in the event that the hospital found appropriate cause.

Although the estate questioned the validity of her signature, it didn't present testimony from a handwriting expert, as the court noted. Further, said the court, there was no public policy issue because it was clearly in Dr. Christophel's interest to sign the release. She was being given the opportunity to get on with her professional life and there was every reason to believe she understood what she was signing, said the court.

Jim Burger

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