SARANAC LAKE - The lawyer for a Saranac Lake pediatrician is asking U.S. District Court Judge Lawrence Kahn to overturn an $11 million malpractice verdict against her client.
Karen Butler, the lawyer representing Dr. Patricia Monroe and Adirondack Internal Medicine and Pediatrics, is also preparing an appeal to the U.S. Second Circuit Court of Appeals in New York City.
"We really don't think she did anything wrong, and we are going to appeal," Butler said.
Last week, a federal court jury found Monroe was negligent for failing to take steps to prevent two young girls from being repeatedly sexually assaulted by their half-brother while they were living in Lake Placid nine years ago. The jury awarded $6 million to the older sister, now 18, and $5 million to the younger sister, now 16.
Butler said her client had no idea of the extent of sexual abuse the young girls had endured when their mother contacted Monroe's office in August 2000.
"All that was communicated to her was that the daughter said the boy had touched her over her underpants a year earlier," Butler said. "Not in her wildest dreams did she think this was what was happening. The mother didn't know this is what was happening. Nobody thought this is what was happening."
The girls' mother called Monroe after she read an entry in her 9-year-old daughter's diary which said her half-brother, who was 14 at the time, had touched her inappropriately. The mother told Monroe that she had taken steps to obtain counseling for her children, that the girls had been separated from their half-brother and that she wouldn't leave them unattended, according to court documents.
But the mother, who now lives in Lake George, told the Glens Falls Post-Star on Tuesday that she expected Monroe would address the abuse allegations with the children after she reported them.
"I turned it over to the doctor," she said. "I didn't know what to do about it."
Butler said Monroe repeatedly asked to meet with the older girl, but the mother didn't bring her into the office until September, when the girl came down with a sore throat. The alleged abuse wasn't discussed during that appointment.
"Dr. Monroe didn't want to ask her while she was in there for a visit for a sore throat," Butler said. "She wanted to take the time to sit and talk to her the right way. It's a very sensitive conversation."
Monroe never spoke to the girl about the abuse allegation and never reported what she had been told to the state child-abuse hotline.
Butler says that's because the girl refused to speak to Monroe and because the incident wasn't reportable to Child Protective Services.
"They will only take a phone call that relates to abuse or neglect of a child by a caregiver, like a parent," Butler said. "They do not take a call of sibling-on-sibling abuse. They will not talk to you."
Police weren't contacted until February 2001, after one of the girls told her mother about the full extent of the rape and sodomy they had been enduring for months.
The girls' half-brother was arrested a week later, and his case was handled in the Family Court system. He spent a year-and-a-half in a juvenile detention center before he was released.
The girls' claim that Monroe should have reported what their mother told her to Child Protective Services was dismissed in a November 2008 U.S. Second Circuit Court of Appeals ruling. Stephen Coffey, the victims' attorney, had argued that Monroe and Adirondack Internal Medicine had violated their duty under New York's mandatory reporter law to report the suspected abuse.
But the court in November found the abuse would only have been a reportable incident if Monroe thought the girls' mother was incapable or unwilling to protect the children from potential abuse.
"The evidence shows that, at the time of the initial reports of abuse, Dr. Monroe had no reason to believe (the mother) was neglecting her duty to protect her daughters from abuse," that decision reads. "With the information she had at the time, Dr. Monroe did not have a duty to report under New York's mandatory reporting laws."
However, that same ruling overturned an earlier dismissal of the case against Monroe and opened the door for a malpractice claim against her and the medical group.
The appeals court judges said there was a "triable question of fact" as to whether Monroe breached her duty to exercise due care by failing to follow up or investigate the steps the mother was or was not taking to protect her daughters from the abuse. The decision left it up to a jury to decide whether that failure was the "proximate cause" of the girls' injuries.
The jury of four men and four women that heard the case last month deliberated for just over seven hours before handing down their $11 million verdict against Monroe and Adirondack Internal Medicine.
Butler said she was surprised.
"I was surprised they found any negligence, and then I was really flabbergasted by the amount," she said. "That's why New York state needs tort reform. These kind of verdicts are driving doctors out of the state."
Coffey said the girls were happy with the verdict.
"They want to move on," he said. "Do they want to be compensated, of course. But they never asked me how much money they're going to get. Money is not a big thing to these kids."
Coffey disputed claims made by some people that the girls' mother should have contacted police sooner.
"She didn't know about what was going on any more than anybody else," Coffey said.
"I don't think she would have consciously just let her son do that to her daughters," she said. "The person who did something wrong in this case was this teenage boy - not anybody else."
The girls' mother told the Post-Star that no amount of money could compensate her family for the "absolute nightmare" they've endured.
"Anybody who wants to spend a day in my shoes, I'd gladly let them," she said. "They couldn't give me $100 million to get me to go through this again."
The initial lawsuit, which was filed in 2002, named other defendants whom the girls' mother had contacted for help, including the Lake Placid Central School District, then-Lake Placid Middle/High School Principal Robert Schiller, then-school Psychologist Randy Quayle, Essex County, St. Agnes Parochial (Catholic) School and the Catholic Diocese of Ogdensburg. But those "mandated reporter" claims were ultimately dismissed.
Coffey said one of the biggest surprises to him was that Monroe's malpractice insurance company never came forward with an offer to settle the case.
"People will be complaining about the amount the jury awarded," he said. "But these are girls who were raped and sodomized. And nobody's asking why Monroe's insurance company let the case get this far without offering a settlement."
Coffey said the $11 million award is the largest medical malpractice verdict his law firm has ever won. Asked what his share will be, Coffey said he could get up to a third of the award, if the verdict is upheld.
"My guess is they're going to fight this as long as they can. They've shown no willingness to come in and discuss this."
Asked if an out-of-court settlement was ever pursued, Butler said, "There was some talk, but settlement negotiations never really got off the ground."
The Enterprise has withheld the names of the girls and their mother from this report because the newspaper does not identify the victims of sexual assault, directly or indirectly.
Contact Chris Knight at 891-2600 ext. 24 or firstname.lastname@example.org.