In what appears to be a case of first impression in this state, the Appellate Division, Second Judicial Department, has upheld an award of punitive damages in a medical malpractice case, based upon a physician's destinction of medical records. 

The case in question, Gomez v. Cabatic (159 AD3d 62), involved a six-year-old girl who died because of her physician's failure to diagnose and treat her diabetes. The doctor admittedly destroyed handwritten notes which were part of the child's medical records, but claimed that the notes had been fully transcribed before being destroyed.

Punitive damages for the destruction of evidence

In 2009, the six-year-old's pediatrician failed to accurately diagnose her diabetes, which led the child to die of diabetic ketoacidosis. When the girl's parents requested her medical records, the doctor destroyed them. After a six-week trial, a jury determined that the physician was liable for malpractice and awarded damages - including $400,000 in pain and suffering, and $100,000 for economic loss, and $7.5 million in punitive damages.

Deterring wrongful conduct

The appeals court unanimously determined that the punitive damages were properly awarded, based upon the destruction of evidence to evade liability. The court stated that the punitive damages are meant to deter other medical professionals' wrongful conduct. Further rejecting the position advocated in an amicus curiae brief, the Second Department stated that the possibility of additional disciplinary action or spoliation sanctions against the defendant should not deter a court from submitting similar cases to a jury. The appellate court did, however, reduce the punitive damages award to $500,000. 

What this means for future cases

The case of Gomez v. Cabatic could potentially have implications beyond medical malpractice cases. The appellate court's ruling could affect other cases involving destruction of evidence in myriad contexts. It could set a precedent for awarding punitive damages when a health care practitioner, or any other party, attempts to avoid liability by destroying evidence. 

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