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Wrongful death: Doctor pronounced woman dead over the phone

We've all seen it on television programs: A doctor works to save the victim of a terrible accident, struggling to save the person's life. After a few seconds, however, the doctor concedes defeat and solemnly declares the victim dead.

This is actually truth in television: Doctors do pronounce victims dead when the situation arises. What most people don't know, however, is that doctors can phone in their pronouncement without being on the scene at all.

This practice is at the center of a recent lawsuit that may soon result in a medical malpractice suit against a New Jersey doctor. The case revolves around a 35-year-old Pennsylvania woman who was visiting New Jersey to witness the annual Polar Bear Plunge that occurs in Sea Isle City each Valentine's Day weekend. Authorities say she visited a bar late one night, leaving alone at 2:15 a.m. without a jacket or a cell phone. She wandered into the public docks at the Sea Isle City marina, where she fell into the water. She managed to crawl back onto dry land, suffering from severe hypothermia. A fisherman found her hours later, lying on her back in a parking lot.

Police officers were the first on the scene. They found the body to be cold and gray, and assumed the victim must be dead. The officers then prevented an ambulance crew from examining the woman, claiming it was a crime scene.

Officers then phoned a doctor, who proclaimed the woman to be dead. This came despite the fact that no medical professionals had examined the woman.

A pair of medical experts later noted that the woman could have been alive at the time she was discovered. The symptoms of severe hypothermia mimic death very closely, but a person can survive even several hours of very low body temperature.

This month, a judge ruled that the family of the victim could move forward with a wrongful death lawsuit against the doctor, stating that the doctor should not have pronounced the woman dead over the phone without the results of an electrocardiogram. The judge said the pronouncement "may have been premature."

The lawsuit is still pending; if a jury finds that the doctor was negligent in his duties, the family would likely seek compensation from his employer, as well.

Source: The Daily Journal, "Doc stating woman dead via phone can be sued" Jim Walsh, Oct. 15, 2013

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