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New York Court of Appeals Lets DOCCS Skate from Liability for Doctor’s Malpractice on State Prisoner

by Douglas Ankney


On December 14, 2023, the New York Court of Appeals refused to hold officials with the state Department of Corrections and Community Supervision (DOCCS) liable for malpractice committed on a state prisoner by Dr. Jun Wang. Why? Because Wang is an employee of private pathology group Cortland Pathology, which is not under contract to DOCCS, so he is not entitled to indemnification by the state.

The underlying facts unfolded after Omar J. Alvarez developed a mass in his right armpit while held at Auburn Correctional Facility in 2012. Pathologist Dr. R. Wayne Cotie, who was under contract with DOCCS to provide medical services to state prisoners, removed a biopsy specimen and sent it to the pathology department at Cortland Regional Medical Center (CRMC) for examination.

Cortland Pathology had an exclusive contract with CRMC to perform all pathology examinations. Wang, a member of Cortland Pathology and also Medical Director of CRMC’s pathology department, examined the specimen and concluded it was benign. But about one year later, the prisoner was diagnosed with Hodgkin’s lymphoma. Meanwhile he developed paraplegia from spinal cord compression attributable to the delayed Hodgkins diagnosis.

Alvarez brought a medical malpractice action against CRMC, which subsequently filed a third-party complaint against Wang and Cortland Pathology, seeking contribution and indemnification. Wang, in turn, sought “defense and indemnification from the State, asserting that he was entitled to coverage under Public Officers Law § 17 and Correction Law § 24-a because the alleged acts or omissions giving rise to the malpractice action arose from the treatment of an incarcerated person at the request of DOCCS.”

New York Attorney General Letitia James (D) “declined to defend and indemnify [Wang],” as the Court later recalled, “opining that [Wang] treated the incarcerated individual pursuant to his employment arrangement with CRMC and that, in the absence of any contract or agreement directly between the State and [Wang] to treat incarcerated persons, the State had no statutory obligation to provide defense or indemnification.”

Wang commenced a CPLR article 78 proceeding to annul James’ determination. A judge in state supreme court denied Wang’s petition and the Appellate Division affirmed the denial. The New York Court of Appeals granted Wang’s motion for leave to appeal.

The Court observed that under § 17, “the State has the obligation to defend and indemnify its employees in actions arising out of the scope of their public employment.” It added that “an ‘employee’ is defined as ‘any person holding a position by election, appointment or employment in the service of the state ... whether or not compensated.’” Importantly, the Court noted that the statute “expressly excludes independent contractors from coverage.”

Moreover, under § 24-a, the provisions of § 17 apply to “any person holding a license to practice a profession ... who is rendering or has rendered professional services authorized under such license while acting at the request of the department or a facility of the department in providing health care and treatment or professional consultation to incarcerated individuals of state correctional facilities.”

The Court opined it was “fundamental” in interpreting these statutes to “attempt to effectuate the intent of the legislature.” And “the clearest indicator of legislative intent is the statutory text,” the Court continued, pointing to People ex rel. E.S. v. Superintendent, Livingston Corr. Facility, 40 NY3d 230 (2023). A statutory construction “which renders one part meaningless should be avoided,” per Matter of Anonymous v. Molik, 32 NY3d 30 (2018). Also, because the statute in question was “in derogation of common law, it should be narrowly construed,” as held in Morris v. Snappy Car Rental, 84 NY2d 21 (1994).

Wang agreed that he performed the pathological services as a result of his contract with CRMC, but he contended that “the statutory language should be read broadly to encompass ancillary professional services rendered as a necessary component of a medical procedure performed at DOCCS’ request, such as the pathological services provided here.” The Court rejected that interpretation as so expansive that it would render meaningless the statutory provision “at the request of the department.”

Further, “[t]he interpretation urged by [Wang] would also expose the State to an undeterminable expansion of financial responsibility for independent professional contractors, as it would require coverage of healthcare professionals with whom the State has no connection and without the opportunity for the State to assess the level of risk presented by those providers.”

Finally, the Court opined that its interpretation was supported by § 24-a’s provision that the State’s duty to defend and indemnify “shall not be construed to impair, alter, limit or modify the rights and obligations of any insurer under any policy of insurance.” In the instant case, that would include Wang’s medical malpractice insurer. Accordingly, the Court affirmed the order of the Appellate Division with costs. See: Wang v. James, 2023 Slip Op 06405 (NY 2023).

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Related legal case

Wang v. James