Insight

Doctors Behaving Badly

Sexual assault at the hands of a physician is a dismaying and surprisingly widespread problem, and many victims are initially reluctant to come forth—but many states are now making it easier to do so.

Doctor with hands behind back in handcuffs holding stethoscope
Lawrence J. Buckfire

Lawrence J. Buckfire

May 18, 2023 09:06 AM

INCIDENTS OF sexual misconduct among physicians during routine physical exams are not uncommon. Until recently, patients rarely reported sexual assaults by their doctors for many reasons: the fear they wouldn’t be believed, embarrassment and mortification, and having been told by the physician that assaultive behaviors were part of a routine exam.

Many doctors are now being investigated and charged criminally throughout the U.S. for sexual assaults on patients, some of which occurred many years ago but that victims have only recently reported. Often, when one patient reports a crime, others will soon follow.

Not long ago, a Michigan urologist serving as an amateur hockey team physician was charged with sexually assaulting a player. In Indiana, an OB/GYN is under investigation for taking photographs of his patients’ private areas without their consent. After these assaults were publicized, dozens of other patients stepped forward to file complaints with the police.

In addition, many high-profile sexual assaults have been reported against major universities by victims of team doctors and college employees. The cases that drew the most attention include gymnasts assaulted by Dr. Larry Nassar at Michigan State University; Dr. Robert Anderson at the University of Michigan; the late Dr. Richard Strauss at Ohio State; and Dr. George Tyndall at the University of Southern California.

In addition to criminal charges and medical licensing issues, physicians throughout the country who have assaulted patients have faced lawsuits. Many large cases—especially those brought against universities—have been settled for significant money, with the victims receiving substantial compensation. Other less-notable cases have prompted sizable settlements as well.

Physicians often try to blur the line between acceptable medical exams and inappropriate sexual touching. They perform unnecessary or otherwise essentially meaningless maneuvers under the false pretense that they’re part of the standard exam. Even suspicious patients tend to trust their doctor, assuming such acts are medical and not predatory in nature.

In a civil suit, patients must prove that sexual abuse occurred. There is usually no physical evidence of assault, and there are seldom eyewitnesses. As such, the cases with the best outcomes are those involving multiple patients with similar complaints.

To prevail, patients must also prove that the physician acted outside the bounds of acceptable medical practice. Patients’ description of an over-invasive exam provides the factual basis for the suit; expert testimony from other doctors regarding the standards of care is required in most states.

In addition to suing the doctor, victims can sue the hospital, university, health system or medical practice that employed the putative abuser. These lawsuits allege that the employer knew, or should have known, about the sexual propensities of the doctor but failed to act to prevent harm. In many cases, administrators ignored complaints and warning signs and permitted the doctor to keep seeing patients.

A primary issue in such sexual assault suits is the statute of limitations. Attacks might have occurred many years prior, and patients came forward only much later—often decades later. Some states, including Ohio, Michigan and New York, have extended the statute of limitations for sexual assault cases to enable these cases to proceed, thereby giving victims time they would otherwise not have had to seek redress.

A Utah court recently held that dozens of patient sexual assault claims against their OB/GYN were barred by the state’s statute of limitations. The trial judge determined that such cases were founded on principles of medical malpractice only, dismissing the suits based on the statute of limitations that applied to medical negligence lawsuits.

Damages awarded in cases like these are often significant. Noneconomic damage includes severe mental anguish, fright, shock and emotional distress. The abuse can affect a victim’s personal relationships and cause nightmares and post-traumatic stress disorder. A mental health professional such as a psychologist or psychiatrist can testify as to the extent and likely permanence of this damage.

Many plaintiffs also suffer financial losses and other economic harm: significant, ongoing expenses related to therapy and medication; a diminution of future earnings; and loss of past wages.

The criminal justice system has held many sexually assaultive physicians accountable for their actions, and some, like Larry Nassar, are serving lengthy prison sentences. However, the criminal process doesn’t compensate victims for their losses. Civil suits must do this.

There are many legitimate reasons for a patient not to report a doctor’s deviant sexual behavior. However, it’s wise for patients who suspect they were a victim of an assault to consult an experienced attorney as soon as possible. This is the best way to prevent similar attacks on other patients, as well as to ensure that a case is filed in a timely manner.

Lawrence J. Buckfire is a trial attorney in Southfield, Michigan. His law firm specializes in personal injury and medical negligence cases.

Click to Explore the full Injury & Malpractice Legal Guide button
Headline Image: Adobe Stock/Sergey Chayko

Related Articles

IN PARTNERSHIP

The Rise of Child Sexual Abuse: A Dark Epidemic


by Justin Smulison

As child sexual abuse cases continue to grow in prevalence, Bobby Saadian, founder & president of Wilshire Law Firm, gives Best Lawyers the inside scoop.

Man in suit with red tie poses for headshot

IN PARTNERSHIP

Things to Consider When Choosing a Sexual Assault Lawyer in Ontario


by Igor Vilkhov

Choosing the right lawyer when faced with sexual assault charges is important. Here are a few things to consider.

Choosing a Sexual Assault Lawyer in Ontario

Best Lawyers: The Injury & Malpractice Legal Guide 2023


by Best Lawyers

Best Lawyers is proud to launch our first ever Injury & Malpractice Legal Guide, featuring all recognized lawyers for personal injury and medical malpractice specialties in Best Lawyers.

Zoomed in image of a cracked glass

IN PARTNERSHIP

Athea Trial Lawyers


by Justin Smulison

Athea Trial Lawyers is a nationally recognized firm who has received record-breaking victories throughout the country on behalf of personal injury victims.

women with shades of blue in mass arrangement

IN PARTNERSHIP

Mastering the Art of Trial Practice


by John Fields

With its billion-dollar track record, Morelli Law Firm has earned a reputation as one of the country's most successful trial firms.

Morelli and team at table in office with windows

IN PARTNERSHIP

Rash Mueller Knows What it Means to Help


by Jeffrey Beasley

David Rash of Rash Mueller draws from first-hand experience on the affects of tragic personal injury and loss. His Florida law firm has spent years dedicated to helping the injured find justice.

Doctor with scope reviewing brain scan on screen

IN PARTNERSHIP

Salvi & Maher, LLP: Illinois and Wisconsin's Personal Injury Firm


by Justin Smulison

For more than 35 years, Salvi & Maher LLP has defended their clients throughout Illinois and Wisconsin in various areas of personal injury law, including medical malpractice, motor vehicle accidents, premises liability and trucking litigation.

Skyline of Chicago with green river and blue background

The Tragic Limitations of New York’s Outdated Wrongful Death Law


by David Scher

New York might be a progressive state in many respects, but its wrongful death law is itself a regressive tragedy—essentially the same statute first passed in the mid-1800s—that prolongs and deepens grieving families’ suffering. This must change.

Grieving person sitting on park bench in front of ocean and storm

Unwelcome Guests


by Michael Winkleman

Evidence indicates that, like cruise ships, hotels are home to a “hidden epidemic” of rape, sexual assault and other crimes. Much more needs to be done to combat this scourge.

Door opening to a hotel room showing a neatly made bed

Hit by a Truck? Here’s What Victims Need to Know


by Jeffrey A. Block

If you’re a driver or passenger in a car involved (or, especially, injured) in an accident with a much larger, heavier vehicle, it can seem Sisyphean just to get your life back on track. But you can do it, armed with this critical information.

Car turned on its side in grass after collision with truck

Building a Safer Culture


by Stephen J. Murphy

More construction workers die on the job in the U.S. than in any other occupation, yet rules and regulations are often honored more in the breach than the observance. Here’s an overview—and a blueprint for change.

Construction worker on high rise building above city

Your Own Best Self


by Frank L. Branson

For trial lawyers who seek to convince a jury—which would be all of us—the key is to be yourself, establish your credibility and then do nothing to undermine the trust you’ve built up.

View of courtroom judges stand from the lawyer bench

Structurally Unsound


by Daniel P. O'Toole

Too often, developers and contractors put profits above the people who work for them. Construction site safety is nonnegotiable. Here’s how to make that aspiration a reality.

Two construction workers in PPE at construction site

IN PARTNERSHIP

Emroch & Kilduff: Virginia's Personal Injury & Medical Malpractice Attorneys


by Emroch & Kilduff

For over 40 years, the award-winning Virginia-based firm Emroch & Kilduff has worked to represent their personal injury clients in both state and federal courts.

Skyline with water and bridge on blue background

IN PARTNERSHIP

Michels & Lew 40 Years of Fighting for Victims


by Philip Michels

Michels & Lew has spent 40 years fighting for victims of personal injuries in California.

Medical professionals in masks and scrubs in operating room

IN PARTNERSHIP

Needle & Ellenberg: Helping Victims of Medical Malpractice Receive Compensation Throughout Florida


by Needle & Ellenberg

Needle & Ellenberg, P.A. discuss five common types of medical malpractice that can help determine if you have a potential claim.

Doctor with hand on face reviewing scan with another doctor in backdrop

Trending Articles

The 2024 Best Lawyers in Spain™


by Best Lawyers

Best Lawyers is honored to announce the 16th edition of The Best Lawyers in Spain™ and the third edition of Best Lawyers: Ones to Watch in Spain™ for 2024.

Tall buildings and rushing traffic against clouds and sun in sky

Presenting The Best Lawyers in Australia™ 2025


by Best Lawyers

Best Lawyers is proud to present The Best Lawyers in Australia for 2025, marking the 17th consecutive year of Best Lawyers awards in Australia.

Australia flag over outline of country

Best Lawyers Expands Chilean 2024 Awards


by Best Lawyers

Best Lawyers is pleased to announce the 14th edition of The Best Lawyers in Chile™ and the inaugural edition of Best Lawyers: Ones to Watch in Chile™, honoring the top lawyers and firms conferred on by their Chilean peers.

Landscape of city in Chile

Best Lawyers Expands 2024 Brazilian Awards


by Best Lawyers

Best Lawyers is honored to announce the 14th edition of The Best Lawyers in Brazil™ and the first edition of Best Lawyers: Ones to Watch in Brazil™.

Image of Brazil city and water from sky

Announcing The Best Lawyers in South Africa™ 2024


by Best Lawyers

Best Lawyers is excited to announce the landmark 15th edition of The Best Lawyers in South Africa™ for 2024, including the exclusive "Law Firm of the Year" awards.

Sky view of South Africa town and waterways

The Best Lawyers in Mexico Celebrates a Milestone Year


by Best Lawyers

Best Lawyers is excited to announce the 15th edition of The Best Lawyers in Mexico™ and the second edition of Best Lawyers: Ones to Watch in Mexico™ for 2024.

Sky view of Mexico city scape

How Palworld Is Testing the Limits of Nintendo’s Legal Power


by Gregory Sirico

Many are calling the new game Palworld “Pokémon GO with guns,” noting the games striking similarities. Experts speculate how Nintendo could take legal action.

Animated figures with guns stand on top of creatures

The Best Lawyers in Portugal™ 2024


by Best Lawyers

The 2024 awards for Portugal include the 14th edition of The Best Lawyers in Portugal™ and 2nd edition of Best Lawyers: Ones to Watch in Portugal™.

City and beach with green water and blue sky

The Best Lawyers in Peru™ 2024


by Best Lawyers

Best Lawyers is excited to announce the landmark 10th edition of The Best Lawyers in Peru, the prestigious award recognizing the country's lop legal talent.

Landscape of Peru city with cliffside and ocean

How To Find A Pro Bono Lawyer


by Best Lawyers

Best Lawyers dives into the vital role pro bono lawyers play in ensuring access to justice for all and the transformative impact they have on communities.

Hands joined around a table with phone, paper, pen and glasses

Presenting the 2024 Best Lawyers Family Law Legal Guide


by Best Lawyers

The 2024 Best Lawyers Family Law Legal Guide is now live and includes recognitions for all Best Lawyers family law awards. Read below and explore the legal guide.

Man entering home and hugging two children in doorway

The Best Lawyers in Colombia™ 2024


by Best Lawyers

Best Lawyers is honored to announce the 14th edition of The Best Lawyers in Colombia™ for 2024, which honors Colombia's most esteemed lawyers and law firms.

Cityscape of Colombia with blue cloudy sky above

Announcing the 2024 Best Lawyers in Puerto Rico™


by Best Lawyers

Best Lawyers is proud to announce the 11th edition of The Best Lawyers in Puerto Rico™, honoring the top lawyers and firms across the country for 2024.

View of Puerto Rico city from the ocean

Announcing The Best Lawyers in Japan™ 2025


by Best Lawyers

For a milestone 15th edition, Best Lawyers is proud to announce The Best Lawyers in Japan.

Japan flag over outline of country

Announcing The Best Lawyers in New Zealand™ 2025 Awards


by Best Lawyers

Best Lawyers is announcing the 16th edition of The Best Lawyers in New Zealand for 2025, including individual Best Lawyers and "Lawyer of the Year" awards.

New Zealand flag over image of country outline

Canada Makes First Foray Into AI Regulation


by Sara Collin

As Artificial Intelligence continues to rise in use and popularity, many countries are working to ensure proper regulation. Canada has just made its first foray into AI regulation.

People standing in front of large, green pixelated image of buildings