Doc in sign language suit given the finger by jury

This is one of those stories that almost sounds made up.  But, no, it’s real:

A punitive damages verdict is enough to catch anyone’s attention. But a verdict for punitive damages in a disability discrimination case can be a double whammy for physicians.

Since such claims are not covered under traditional medical liability insurance, any judgments would come out of doctors’ own pockets.

That is exactly what befell New Jersey rheumatologist Robert A. Fogari, MD, when a Hudson County jury in October 2008 unanimously handed down a $400,000 award against him for allegedly refusing to pay for a sign language interpreter for a patient who is deaf. Half of the award was for punitive damages.

Well, couldn’t he just use written notes to communicate with the patient?  I have a couple of deaf patients and I do that.  It turns out he did:

The Jersey City rheumatologist argued that, as a solo physician, he could not afford the cost, which was estimated at $150 to $200 per visit. The expense was overly burdensome given that Medicare reimbursed only $49 per visit, according to Dr. Fogari’s attorney. Instead of hiring an interpreter, Dr. Fogari exchanged written notes with Gerena, with the help of family members.

Dr. Fogari is appealing the verdict and I both hope and expect that he’ll win round two.

This is nuts.  Exactly what could be communicated through sign language that couldn’t through written notes?

Let’s not forget the take home message to all physicians: if you have deaf patients and don’t use an interpreter, dismiss them.  They’re medicolegal time bombs.  That’s the message here.  The message isn’t “If a patient tries to bring suit against you for something frivolous, the legal system will be on your side.”  The message is “We’re going to find a dozen inhabitants of the left side of the IQ Bell curve and let them judge how you run your practice.  We’ll call them a jury of your ‘peers,’ but they aren’t.  Oh, and if you win on appeal, the jury that originally found you guilty don’t have to apologize to you or pay a fine to you.  So the deck is stacked against you from the start.  So if you want to avoid this sort of thing, fire any and all patients with any sort of communication problem because they are a medicolegal time bomb waiting to explode.”

That’s the message of this verdict.

One Response to “Doc in sign language suit given the finger by jury”

  1. Actually, ASL (American Sign Language), although seemingly similar to English, is not the same. It is a language on it’s own with different syntax, and language rules. It is a misnomer that all deaf people can read and write English well, or at all. It’s like saying that you should be able to read Greek, even if you can’t speak it.

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