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Prayer for Relief: when medical malpractice occurs in a religious setting.

I. Counselor's law

There’s no doubt that broken, hurting people are also often the most vulnerable people. If you add in the mix of religious faith and the need for a miracle, it’s a wonder that medical malpractice attorneys don’t see more cases involving religious medical practices. One of the most interesting cases in recent years involved a series of hurting people, whose faith was severely tested by the medical practices of their religious doctrine.

The pastor’s name was Michael R. He led a small congregation dubbed the Charismatic Episcopal Church, which in turn operated a ministry for counseling called Isaiah 61. Isaiah 61 and Michael R. in turn hired or consulted with medical Doctor J.C., who was a licensed M.D., in North Carolina. Dr. C.’s religious connection ran fairly deep with both Michael R. and Isaiah 61. Dr. C. was involved, not only in helping the counseling services, but also attended one of the Isaiah 61 Bible studies.

As early as 1995, as the medical malpractice attorney proved later, the North Carolina Board of Licensed Professional Counselor’s issued an order to the Isaiah 66 counselor, telling him to stop providing counseling services. There appeared to be facts showing that he was unlicensed to practice counseling under North Carolina Counselor’s law. Instead of ceasing, the church counselor told the Board that Dr. C was his “direct” supervisor and was licensed. The counselor continued to operate as before, and it was another two years (1998) before the North Carolina Board sent another letter, again ordering the cessation of counseling.

Crucially, evidence gathered by the medical malpractice attorney showed that while the counselor claimed to receive only “donations,” in fact he received significant amounts of income based on these alleged “donations.” Three specific cases were eventually brought against Isaiah 61 and the medical doctor, alleging either negligence or medical malpractice.

II.   Case Number One: Tami B.

Tami started her counseling in 1994, ostensibly to save her marriage. Within two years, apparently, she was seeking counseling for a wider variety of reasons. The physical pain that she experienced was attributed by the counselor to a religious rather than traumatic or physical injury. The counselor said that Tami was suffering from ‘stigmata pain.’ This is a condition described as being “pain associated with the punishment of Christ when Christ was nailed to the cross.” The church counselor told Tami that she didn’t need medication, and took her to see Dr. C. In explaining to the medical malpractice lawyer what type of referral it was, the counselor at one time expressed that it was a “business relationship” rather than a purely medical consult. The medical malpractice attorney also introduced evidence that the counselor at other times said that the doctor “supervised” the counseling sessions and actively reviewed counseling notes and records. It was at one time claimed that Doctor C. “signed off” on “everything” the counselor did. Notably, in Tami’s case, the medical malpractice attorney had evidence that the medical doctor actually listened to the counselor’s explanation of stigmata pain as credible, and even provided the doctor “with literature and written documents that pertain to stigmata so that Dr. C could educate himself.” The doctors response? He told Tami that the counselor was “very qualified.”

III.   Case number two: Kathie B.

The medical malpractice attorney also represented Kathie who had significant similarities and a few differences with Tami’s case. Unlike the prior case, Kathie sought counseling for grief over the death of her mother. Unlike the other case, Kathie was told that it was not necessary to continue treatment. The distinction also had a sexual dimension. The medical malpractice attorney introduced evidence that the counselor from the church, more than a year after her treatment ended, visited Kathie and attempted to initiate sexual relations.

IV.  Case number three: Frieda F.

This case was a very similar treatment plan with Tami’s case. And as with the prior two cases, this injured party also began to wear a nun’s habit, as part of the overall religious orientation of the counseling. The women regarded themselves as belonging to a religious “order,” rather than a cult. Grief counseling was the motivation for Frieda in originally seeking help from the church counselor. As with the other two cases, the medical malpractice attorney could point to similar promises of medical treatment. They were all told that counseling was done with at least some degree of significant oversight, or even access to medication, via the role of a medical doctor. Frieda also provided more than $50,000 to the church counselor during the period of counseling. Frieda, however, apparently was in a unique position in terms of actual services, since Dr. C. apparently “never took part in her counseling sessions” with the church counselor.

Next, the medical malpractice attorney was willing to acknowledge that the court had accepted the basis of medical malpractice for these claims. This, in turn, meant that it was crucial to establish exactly how involved Dr. C. had been in the cases… and for exactly how long. The cases had to have been brought within four years, prior to the ending of any supervisory relationship between the church and the doctor. To help demonstrate this connection, and its timing, the medical malpractice attorney presented a key letter. This “smoking gun” evidence had been sent between the parties, and suggested extensive cooperation. The church argued back, and insisted it was merely a “form letter.” The medical malpractice attorney shot down this feint: the letter was hardly just a form. In fact, in its original form, the note was carefully handwritten.

Conclusions:  The Handwriting On the Wall

To win a complicated case such as this, an experienced medical malpractice attorney will show both (a) the existence of a substantial right of the victim which (b) has been harmed. This was especially important in this case, because the church and the doctor attempted to seek a dismissal of the injured women’s claims on summary judgment. For their part, the church and Dr C. also attempted to argue that prior settlements and delays on the part’s of the (alleged) victims should have prevented the case from going forward. Because these two arguments are such common preliminary defense tactics, it is absolutely essential – especially when people are aware of other possible victims in such a case – to coordinate and consult with only an experienced medical malpractice attorney, and as soon as possible. Based on the evidence that he was able to present, the medical malpractice attorney in this case successfully argued that there were significant issues of fact that deserved a full hearing in court. The dismissal was reversed, and the women got their days in court. If you, a family member or a loved one have been hurt in a medical or health care setting—or have questions related to counseling malpractice, or involving related claims or your legal rights or hearings, please contact us.  You will speak with a medical malpractice attorney who can best answer your questions.  There is never a fee for this initial consultation.

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