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ARTICLE ID 169136

$________ Medical malpractice - Psychology - Plaintiffs allege defendant government entity is vicariously liable for staff psychologist's sexual misconduct.

South Santa Barbara County, California

In this action for medical malpractice, six plaintiffs alleged that they were the victims of sexual misconduct at the hands of the defendant government entity’s staff psychologist. The defendant staff psychologist denied the allegations and the defendant government entity denied vicarious liability.

The defendant government entity provides mental health services to poor and indigent citizens within its jurisdiction. Specifically, the defendant psychologist was assigned patients (the "plaintiffs") for whom he was supposed to provide therapeutic services. Instead, the six plaintiffs, all adult women who claimed to be his patients, accused the defendant psychologist of sexual misconduct.

Consequently, the plaintiffs pressed criminal charges against the defendant psychologist and filed a parallel civil action against both the defendant psychologist and the defendant government agency, claiming a myriad of psychological damages. In the civil action, the defendant psychologist was accused of medical malpractice and a plethora of intentional torts. In addition, the plaintiffs argued that the defendant government entity was liable for the defendant psychologist’s actions based on the legal theory of vicarious liability. The plaintiffs also accused the defendant government entity of negligent hiring and supervising, as well as, statutory violations of ________ of the Civil Rights Act.

The defendant psychologist denied the allegations, arguing that there was no medical malpractice; claiming instead that any sexual relationship that did occur did not arise out of the therapeutic relationships with the plaintiffs. Additionally, the defendant psychologist denied having any sexual relationship with one of the plaintiffs.

During pre-trial motion practice, the defendant government entity was successful in moving to dismiss both the plaintiffs’ statutory civil rights claims and the plaintiffs’ claims of negligent hiring/supervision. Thus, the defendant government entity focused its defense solely on the issue of vicarious liability arguing, in essence, that under the current state of the law, an employer cannot be liable for the type of behavior allegedly exhibited by the defendant psychologist and in the circumstances under which it was said to occur. Also, the defendant government entity specifically contended that the behavior alleged did not arise out of any known therapeutic service but was, instead, an intentional manipulation of the psychologist/patient relationship.

In support of its defense, the defendant government entity conducted independent psychiatric evaluations of each of the six plaintiffs. Upon completion of these evaluations, the psychiatric expert concluded first, that the impact of any alleged sexual misconduct was not as severe as plaintiffs claimed insofar as each had serious mental conditions that preexisted the alleged sexual misconduct. Second, the psychiatric expert concluded that given the plaintiffs’ arguments as to why they participated in the alleged sexual misconduct, it could not have been a product of the therapeutic relationship.

Although the civil action was delayed until the conclusion of the criminal action wherein the defendant psychologist was convicted of various criminal acts and sentenced to serve time in prison, the parties were ultimately able to negotiate two separate settlements. As of July 27, ________, approximately two months before the civil trial was set to begin, the plaintiffs recovered a total sum of $________ from the defendant psychologist, as well as a total sum of $________ from the defendant government entity, to be split among the plaintiffs pursuant to the specific terms of the settlement agreement.

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