Baltimore - A “rogue” gynaecologist's secret use of tiny cameras to record hundreds of videos and photographs of his patients' sex organs has led to a $190-million settlement with 8 000 women and girls, lawyers said on Monday.
Dr Nikita Levy was fired after 25 years with the Johns Hopkins Health System in Baltimore in February 2013 after a female co-worker alerted authorities about a pen-like camera he wore around his neck.
He committed suicide days later, as a federal investigation led to roughly 1 200 videos and 140 images stored on computers in his home.
“All of these women were brutalised by this,” said their lead attorney, Jonathan Schochor. “Some of these women needed counselling, they were sleepless, they were dysfunctional in the workplace, they were dysfunctional at home, they were dysfunctional with their mates. This breach of trust, this betrayal - this is how they felt.”
The preliminary settlement approved by a judge on Monday is one of the largest on record in the US involving sexual misconduct by a physician. It all but closes a case that never produced criminal charges but seriously threatened the reputation of one of the world's leading medical centres.
Lawyers said thousands of women were traumatised, even though their faces were not visible in the images and it could not be established with certainty which patients were recorded or how many.
Plaintiffs' attorney Howard Janet said 62 girls were among the victims, and that Levy violated hospital protocol by sending chaperones out of the exam room.
Hopkins said insurance will cover the settlement, which “properly balances the concerns of thousands of plaintiffs with obligations the Health System has to provide ongoing and superior care to the community”.
“It is our hope that this settlement - and findings by law enforcement that images were not shared - helps those affected achieve a measure of closure,” the hospital statement said, adding that “one individual does not define Johns Hopkins”.
About 8 000 of his patients contacted lawyers in the class-action lawsuit, which alleged that the hospital should have known what he was up to.
“This has shaken the Hopkins system,” said Hopkins' attorney, Donald DeVries, who said Levy “went rogue”.
“There was no inkling of it. Hopkins was unaware,” DeVries said.
Once alerted to the problem, hospital authorities quickly notified Baltimore police and escorted Levy off campus. Police and federal investigators said they found no evidence he shared the material with others.
Some women told of being inappropriately touched and verbally abused by Levy, according to Schochor. Some said they were regularly summoned to Levy's office for unnecessary pelvic exams.
The settlement involves eight law firms and is subject to final approval by Judge Sylvester B. Cox after a “fairness hearing” where the women can speak. Each plaintiff was interviewed by a forensic psychologist and a post-traumatic stress specialist to determine how much trauma she suffered and how much money she will receive.
Myra James, 67, had been going to him for annual exams for 20 years. Since his misconduct became public, she hasn't been to a gynaecologist once.
“I can't bring myself to go back,” James said. “You're lying there, exposed. It's violating and it's horrible, and my trust is gone. Period.”
The AP normally does not identify possible victims of sex crimes, but James agreed to the use of her name.
Levy, 54, graduated from the Weill Cornell Medical College in Manhattan, and completed his internship and residency at Kings County Hospital Centre. He began working at Hopkins in 1988. When the allegations came to light, he was working at Hopkins East Baltimore Medical Centre.
He saw roughly 12 600 patients during his 25 years at Hopkins.
“Did he take pictures of me? There's no way of knowing,” said another former patient whose two children were delivered by Levy. “I felt violated, because I don't know if for sure if he had pictures of me, or who has seen them.”
Schochor said there is no way to identify which patients were recorded without having them “sit around a table and try to identify sexual organs without pictures of faces”, something the lawyer said would be impossible and could cause the women more distress.
Levy's suicide - by wrapping his head in a plastic bag with a hose connected to a helium tank - frustrated everyone who wanted to know his motives and see him face justice.
Hopkins sent out letters to Levy's entire patient list last year, apologising to the women and urging them to seek care with other Hopkins specialists.
But hundreds were so traumatised that they “dropped out of the medical system”, and some even stopped sending their children to doctors, Schochor said.
James said her dealings with Levy were always unsettling. She said she found it strange that he conducted examinations without a nurse present.
“He was cold, and I was kind of scared of him. His bedside manner - he didn't have any,” she said. “But all my doctors were at Hopkins. I've had two surgeries there, my primary doctor is there. I was used to going there for everything.” - Sapa-AP