Lesbian couple files medical malpractice lawsuit

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by John Christoffersen
Associated Press

July 18, 2006

STAMFORD, Conn. -- A lesbian couple filed a medical malpractice lawsuit Tuesday claiming botched cancer treatments damaged their love life. Their attorneys say it is the first of its kind under Connecticut's civil unions law.

Margaret Mueller and Charlotte Stacey are suing two doctors, accusing them of treating Mueller for ovarian cancer when she actually had cancer of the appendix. They contend Mueller underwent years of devastating chemotherapy treatments while the real cancer spread.

"I think it's any patient's worst fear that everything they're doing to treat themselves is for naught," said Joshua Koskoff, an attorney for the couple.

Connecticut's civil union law, passed last year, allowed Stacey also to sue for the harm to her relationship, known as a loss of consortium claim, Koskoff said. Before the law gave gay couples the same legal rights as heterosexual married couples in Connecticut, only a married partner could seek that compensation.

"The victims of malpractice are rich and poor, gay and straight, Democrat and Republican," Koskoff said. "If that's the case, the law shouldn't discriminate in the way it treats victims of malpractice."

Attorneys for the doctors, Iris Wertheim and Isidore Tepler, say the two provided appropriate care for a complex illness.

Eric Stockman, Wertheim's attorney, said he does not plan to challenge Stacey's right to be added to the lawsuit, which seeks unspecified damages.

The original lawsuit was filed earlier this year on Mueller's behalf. The new lawsuit was amended in Stamford Superior Court to seek damages on Stacey's behalf as well.

Mueller and Stacey were domestic partners for 21 years and were joined in a civil union on Nov. 12, 2005, according to the lawsuit.

"Up until the law passed we were considered legal strangers," Mueller said at a news conference at the couple's Norwalk home. "We were scared, really scared, that Charlotte would have absolutely no rights."

State Sen. Andrew McDonald, D-Stamford, said the case shows how the Connecticut civil union law was meant to work.

"Under the law, this is a no-brainer," said McDonald, one of the law's authors. "Without a doubt any couple who is joined in a civil union has exactly the same rights under our law as a married couple, including the right to maintain action in the courts for loss of consortium."

The couple said the painful treatments could have been avoided if the doctors read the original pathology report that correctly identified the cancer.

"I saw three and a half years of Marge literally sleeping her life away," Stacey said. "She's fighting to stay alive."

The women said virtually every aspect of their lives was changed by the ordeal. Mueller was no longer able to climb the 27 stairs at her condo in Stamford, so the couple moved to Norwalk and now Stacey spends four hours per day commuting to her insurance job in New York.

Stacey recalled the couple's many sleepless nights, sudden trips to the hospital and endless injections to treat the cancer.

"Charlotte has been there for everything," Mueller said. "She kept me going. There's a lot we can't do any more. She has to do an awful lot by herself."

Mueller must use a colostomy bag and can no longer perform simple chores like mowing the lawn and housekeeping and has trouble with singing in a church choir, a passion that brought the couple together in the first place. A slight incline in their neighborhood makes a short walk a challenge, while plans to renovate their house are on hold.

"I used to keep up the home," Mueller said. "The place would be immaculate. Now we have to hire someone."

After years of treatments, Mueller eventually got a second opinion last year by a doctor who told her she did not have ovarian cancer, according to the lawsuit. She immediately underwent a massive 12-hour surgery to remove as much cancer as possible.

The couple held hands as they walked slowing up their stairs after the news conference.

"Last year I had a fatal disease," Mueller said. "This year I think it's a chronic disease."