A Casper woman has filed suit against the federal government, alleging a local medical clinic was negligent in its hiring of a gynecologist later convicted of sexually assaulting his patients.
A Natrona County jury in January of last year found Dr. Paul Harnetty guilty of sexually assaulting two of his patients. He is now serving a 20- to 30-year prison term. Tosha Blackburn, who brought the lawsuit Friday, was one of six women who testified at the criminal trial that Harnetty had assaulted them. Jurors, however, found Harnetty not guilty of the count that pertained to Blackburn’s allegations.
In February, state legislators passed a bill sponsored by Debbie Bovee, D-Casper, strengthening criminal penalties for medical providers convicted of sexually assaulting patients. The legislation also mandated that licensing boards review rules pertaining to the use of chaperones in health care settings. When the law passed, Bovee credited Blackburn with inspiring the legislation.
The Star-Tribune does not typically identify people who may have been sexually assaulted unless they come forward to identify themselves. However, Blackburn has made her case public, testifying before state lawmakers and telling her story in the Star-Tribune.
Defendants in the case did not want to comment when reached Monday by a reporter.
“Our office doesn’t have anything to add at this time,” Mark Trimble, a spokesman for the U.S. Attorney’s Office, said by email Monday afternoon.
The clinic’s CEO, Cole White, said by phone Monday afternoon that he could not comment on the case. He cited patient care, patient safety and the open legal proceedings in declining to speak.
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The lawsuit, which a court clerk’s stamp indicates was filed Friday afternoon, names the federal government as its sole respondent. It seeks $2.5 million in compensation for personal injury relating to the alleged assault. The lawsuit indicates Harnetty both physically and psychologically injured her by assaulting her at the Casper location of Community Health Centers of Central Wyoming during a September 2015 office visit.
Her husband, Josh Blackburn, also claims emotional damages in the filings.
Two years after the alleged assault, Blackburn filed a claim with the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, the lawsuit states. She appealed a denial of her request for administrative remedy, and in December of last year the agency again denied her appeal, according to the filings.
Federal law makes the government liable for certain civil lawsuits brought as the result of harm done by government employees on the job. Because the Casper clinic is funded by the federal agency, the government could be found responsible for claims against CHCCW employees.
Also named in the lawsuit is Priscilla Martinez, a nurse who worked at the clinic with Harnetty and — Blackburn alleges — did not properly chaperone Harnetty when he was to examine Blackburn. The lawsuit alleges that the clinic negligently hired Harnetty, did not properly train Martinez and did not properly supervise her or the doctor.
The case alleges the agency is responsible for the doctor’s actions, which Blackburn says include assault and emotional distress he brought on.
Jeremy Hugus, who represents Blackburn in the civil case, did not immediately respond to a Monday afternoon phone message requesting further comment for this story.