Legal questions quickly arise in the wake of Lewis' death

July 28, 1993|By Boston Globe

BOSTON -- Even as Reggie Lewis' survival was hanging in the balance last night, the crass-sounding but inevitable legal questions began to surface. Questions such as whether the Boston Celtics are in any way liable for his being back on a court at Brandeis University and whether doctors who gave him the green light opened themselves to lawsuits.

The standard for medical malpractice is a straightforward one: "It's what the average, reasonably prudent doctor in that specialty should have diagnosed based on the circumstances he faced," said Neil Sugarman, president of the Massachusetts Academy of Trial Attorneys.

On the one hand, Sugarman and other lawyers say, that standard is quite broad, and Lewis' most recent physician, Dr. Gilbert Mudge, is highly respected in his field. Yet Mudge's judgment that Lewis was OK was in conflict with that of at least some of the 12 members of a medical team assembled last spring to diagnose the Celtics captain after he collapsed on the court -- and that disagreement could become the focus of a lawsuit.

"It's not a question of balancing numbers, how many more doctors are on one side than another," Sugarman said. "And since medicine is still an inexact science, sometimes there are different diagnoses considered."

Michael E. Mone, another malpractice specialist who soon will take over as president of the Massachusetts Bar Association, also was skeptical about any malpractice action against Mudge or Brigham and Women's Hospital, where he is chief of clinical cardiology.

"The issue," Mone said, "is, 'Did the doctor act unreasonably? Was he careless?' That's going to be hard to prove.

"This is a situation where Dr. Mudge knew when he gave this advice there always was the chance he'd be second-guessed and therefore he was very careful and was giving what he felt was the best advice. . . . Reggie Lewis is an adult and he had conflicting advice. He elected to go with the advice he and his family were most comfortable with."

What about the Celtics? Are they in any way liable for Lewis' being back on the court yesterday, even though he was working out on his own?

Lawyers were as reluctant to address this issue as they were the malpractice one, given that Lewis' life was hanging in the balance last night, but they said there are certain guiding principles.

First, Massachusetts law provides that employees are covered by workers' compensation when there is an injury. "Reggie Lewis is an employee of the Boston Celtics," Mone said, "and his ability to sue his employer is no different than if he were working in a shipyard."

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