Lawsuits may force hospitals to monitor for abuse

For years, gynecologist Nikita Levy examined women at Johns Hopkins East Baltimore Community Medical Center with what looked like an ordinary pen hanging around his neck.

It wasn’t until a suspicious technician snatched one of the pens that Johns Hopkins administrators learned what Levy was doing. Inside the pen was a small camera that Levy secretly used to take intimate videos and photos of hundreds of exposed patients.

Dr. Nikita Levy

Within days, the hospital reported him to police and fired him. Soon after, the disgraced gynecologist suffocated himself in his suburban home.

Then, even though Johns Hopkins denied knowing about the secret photography and had acted quickly to protect patients once it learned of it, the hospital agreed to settle a class-action lawsuit with Levy’s former patients for $190 million.

The Levy case is among several lawsuits in recent years that hinge not on hospitals’ covering up abuse by a doctor, but on a broader notion of their responsibility to uphold standards of patient care.

The extent of that responsibility is being hammered out as patients file lawsuits and courts hand down verdicts. Even without a verdict, high-profile settlements like John Hopkins’ can have a profound impact on how hospitals regulate physicians, said Timothy Lytton, a professor at the Georgia State University College of Law and author of a book on the clergy abuse scandal.

“These sorts of lawsuits reframe the issue of sexual abuse from rogue doctors, to the institutional responsibility of administrators to supervise their medical staff in a way that would reduce the risk of sexual abuse,” Lytton said.

Pointing to the Catholic priest scandals, Lytton said filing such cases can mobilize previously isolated victims to come together to demand action and, in turn, bring scrutiny to institutions from the public and those who regulate physicians.

In the Levy case, the lawsuit alleged Johns Hopkins was negligent for failing to monitor the physician’s practice as he victimized patients with his spy pen over a span of years. Levy’s patients should have had or been offered chaperones during examinations — witnesses who might have discovered his behavior, said Jonathan Schochor, lead attorney for patients in the case.

“An institution has an obligation to actually, properly and routinely monitor the conduct of their physicians,” he said. That oversight is essential, he said, to ensure that physicians comply with the basic tenets of medicine.

A spokesperson for Johns Hopkins responded to an interview request with a written statement that read, in part, “Though it is difficult to police for individual behavioral issues we have taken numerous steps to educate, inform and empower our staff to identify and alert us to issues.”

Ryon Horne/AJC

» Video: Doctors & Sex Abuse: Our investigation so far

In another high-profile case, St. Francis Hospital in Connecticut was ordered to pay $2.75 million in 2011 to one of scores of victims of Dr. George Reardon, a pediatric endocrinologist who took nude photographs of children for decades beginning in the 1960s, largely under the pretext of conducting a human growth study.

The extent of his actions didn’t come to light until 2007, when the owner of his former home discovered thousands of images of Reardon’s victims behind a wall panel.

Lawyers for the first victim whose case went to trial convinced a jury that the hospital failed to uphold the standards of patient care by showing that it didn’t even follow its own rules for monitoring physician research studies.

A spokesperson for St. Francis declined to comment for this article, citing pending litigation.

In a sign of how legal standards evolve, the jury also found that the hospital violated an affirmative duty under a separate section of Connecticut law to protect children in its custody. On appeal, the Connecticut Supreme Court agreed with the jury, effectively establishing a higher bar for hospitals in cases involving children. The hospital settled many of the remaining lawsuits filed by Reardon’s victims shortly thereafter.

Douglas Mahoney, the plaintiff’s lead attorney in the first Reardon case, said the ruling provided a new legal strategy for child sexual abuse victims in Connecticut to seek damages against institutions where they were abused.

He told the AJC that he hopes courts in other states with similar laws will look to the Connecticut ruling for guidance in future lawsuits against institutions where children have been abused.

Ultimately, that may lead hospitals to take further steps to prevent such abuse in the first place.