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Melissa Rivers Files Wrongful Death Lawsuit in New York Supreme Court

As was expected for several months, Melissa Rivers, the sole daughter of the late comedian and T.V. personality Joan Rivers, has filed a medical malpractice and wrongful death lawsuit in connection with her mother’s death on September 4, 2014.  The suit, filed on January 26, 2015, alleges that Rivers unnecessarily died from cardiac and respiratory arrest due to a series of easily preventable medical errors committed by several treating doctors during the course of a voluntary examination of Ms. Rivers’ vocal cords.

The defendants include:  Dr. Gwen Korovin, Ms. Rivers’ private doctor; the Yorkville Endoscopy Clinic; (which has been temporarily shuttered to determine if it will continue to be permitted to receive Medicaid and Medicare funding); Dr. Renuka Bankulla, the anesthesiologist; and Dr. Lawrence Cohen, the medical director of Yorkville, where the procedure was performed. The case revolves around complaints that Ms. Rivers had concerning unusual hoarseness and inflamed vocal cords.  Dr. Korovin, who reportedly did not have privileges at the clinic, was to insert a small instrument into Ms. Rivers’ windpipe to examine her vocal cords.  However, Dr. Bankulla appears to have noted that Ms. Rivers’ vocal cords were very swollen, and could seize up, causing her to be unable to breathe.  It is alleged in the suit that Dr. Cohen dismissed those concerns with a claim that Dr. Bankulla was “paranoid.”  In fact, it is further claimed that Dr. Cohen was so unconcerned about Ms. Rivers’ condition that he took cellphone photographs of Ms. Rivers while she was lying unresponsive on the operating table. Ms. Rivers went into cardiac and respiratory arrest on August 28, 2014, never regained consciousness, and died on September 4, 2014.  There is no official cause of Ms. Rivers’ death as yet, but reportedly federal health officials conducting an investigation have determined that the treating doctors failed to detect that Rivers’ vital signs were dropping and her vocal cords closing during the procedure. When it was too late, according to lawyers, Dr. Bankulla recognized that Ms. Rivers had an airway obstruction, but apparently, she never requested a “crash cart”, which would have provided drugs such as succinylcholine that would relax Rivers’ muscles and allow the introduction of a breathing tube.  Further, Dr. Korovin, it is alleged, realizing that the procedure was turning terribly wrong, “fled the clinic”, at the same time that Dr. Bankulla was looking for Dr. Korovin to open a hole in Ms. Rivers’ throat, called an emergency “cricothyrotomy.”  Reportedly, the lawyers obtained this information from a five page statement of Dr. Bankulla and other unreleased documents.

Melissa Rivers stated: “Not only did my mother deserve better, every patient deserves better.” She is the sole heir to her mother’s estate (Melissa’s father, Edgar Rosenberg, committed suicide in 1987) and the Rivers estate has been valued as high as one hundred to one hundred fifty million dollars.  In the months before her untimely death at 81, Joan Rivers was performing regularly on stage, and in fact performed the night before the fateful procedure.  She was a regular on talk shows, appeared frequently on the Howard Stern satellite radio show, and was often on pre-Oscars events.  Therefore, the wrongful death claim, which is based on the earnings of the deceased, could be substantial.

The defense will argue that Ms. Rivers’ work life expectancy was very limited based on Department of Labor statistics, and that even if in good health, she would not be likely to work more than another few years.  Then again, who can forget Bob Hope and George Burns, who worked well into their nineties, and in Mr. Burns’ case, almost to 100! With regard to the medical malpractice allegations, Rivers’ attorneys will have to prove that she had “conscious pain and suffering”, which may be hard to prove, as she apparently never regained consciousness.  There is no cause of action for emotional pain and suffering due to the loss of a parent, child or spouse under New York State law, but Melissa could have a claim for loss of parental guidance.

If you or a family member are the victim of medical malpractice, contact the Law Office of Mark A. Siesel, with offices in the Bronx or White Plains, for a free consultation to discuss your potential case in detail. Contact our office online or toll free at 888-761-7633.