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Punitive Damages Award Dismissed by New York’s Highest Court in Case against Physician who Sexually Exploited Patient

Posted in Psychological Damages, Punitive Damages

Following incapacitating panic attacks in 2000, Kristin Dupree, then 29 years old, treated with family practitioner James F. Giugliano, M.D. in Southampton, New York over a period of 17 months. The doctor’s “treatment” included a nine month long sexual relationship that his patient later claimed caused her severe emotional distress.

A malpractice lawsuit against the doctor was filed in 2004. Plaintiff testified at trial that she had been unable to control herself and refrain from a sexual relationship with her doctor. She produced expert testimony from a psychiatrist who concluded that plaintiff had experienced eroticized transference – a medical phenomenon in which a patient experiences a near psychotic attraction to her treating physician.

In November 2008 a verdict was rendered in plaintiff’s favor in the sum of $416,000 ($200,000 for mental distress and $134,00 for economic damages, reduced by 25% to $250,000 for plaintiff’s comparative fault) plus $166,000 for punitive damages.

The verdict was affirmed on appeal in 2011 and we discussed the case and the initial appeal here.

Now, New York’s highest court has dismissed the punitive damages award in Dupree v. Giugliano (Court of Appeals 2012).

The court clarified the standard for an award of punitive damages in New York noting  that a defendant must manifest evil or malicious conduct beyond any breach of professional duty. There must be aggravation or outrage, such as spite or malice, or a fraudulent or evil motive on the part of the defendant, or such a conscious and deliberate disregard of the interests of others that the conduct may be called willful or wanton.

In this case, the high court concluded, punitive damages were not available because there was no evidence that the doctor willfully caused plaintiff’s transference or harm.

Inside Information:

  • In arguing that the doctor’s conduct was not aggravated beyond mere negligence, the defense noted that he was having his own domestic problems at home, was “caught up in the moment” and was “obviously smitten by the beauty and charm of the plaintiff and her seductive conduct.”
  • Plaintiff argued that the defendant’s behavior clearly showed his conscious disregard of plaintiff’s interests and was like “tossing a match into a dry forest” because she could have been quickly cured of her panic attacks but instead was sexually exploited and will as a result suffer many years of severe depression.