The Second Department, reversing County Court, determined defendant’s motion to vacate her conviction by guilty plea on ineffective-assistance grounds should have been granted. Defendant, a nurse, was accused of endangering the welfare of a physically disabled child by bathing the child in hot water causing thermal burns. This case has a long history, including the vacation of the conviction by the Second Department on the ground of actual innocence. The Second Department was reversed by the Court of Appeals which held the “actual innocence” argument cannot be raised where the defendant has pled guilty. Here the Second Department vacated the conviction again on the ground of ineffective assistance. There was medical evidence which was consistent with the child’s skin condition being caused by a reaction to medication, as opposed to hot water. Defendant’s counsel did not obtain the skin biopsy report, which attributed the skin condition to an allergic reaction to medication, and did not consult a medical expert:
… [D]espite references in the hospital records indicating that a skin biopsy was ordered, the defendant’s former counsel failed to obtain the skin biopsy pathology report, which would have supported the conclusion that the child’s skin condition was caused, not by thermal burns, but by toxic epidermal necrolysis (hereinafter TEN), a condition associated with an allergic reaction to a medication that the child had been taking. In this regard, the pathology report, which was prepared by three pathologists, set forth that the skin biopsies were performed the day after the child was admitted to the hospital, and that the child’s skin condition was “consistent with a diagnosis” of TEN if no oral lesions were present, or Stevens Johnson Syndrome (hereinafter SJS) if associated with oral lesions. An addendum to the report indicated that the clinical data ruled out SJS, and, therefore, implicated TEN as the diagnosis.
The defendant also demonstrated that her former counsel failed to consult a medical expert, or take steps to either seek the services of a court-appointed medical expert, or find a source of funding to secure the services of a medical expert before counseling the defendant to plead guilty. At the hearing, the defendant offered the expert testimony of Bruce Farber, a physician board-certified in the fields of internal medicine and infectious diseases, who reviewed all the medical records, including the subject pathology report. He opined that, based upon his review of medical records, as well as the pathology report, the child’s skin condition was caused by TEN, and not thermal burns. He testified that the medical records, including the hospital chart, showed that the various medical providers, including a pediatrician, emergency room physician, dermatologist, infectious disease expert, and a burn fellow formulated differential diagnoses including SJS, TEN, or staphylococcal scalded skin syndrome, none of which included thermal burns. People v Tiger, 2022 NY Slip Op 04568, Second Dept 7-13-22
Practice Point: Here defense counsel told defendant to plead guilty to endangering the welfare of a disabled child (by bathing the child in hot water), causing burns. But the medical records included a skin biopsy report which indicated the child suffered an allergic reaction to medication, not thermal burns. The failure to investigate the medical records and the failure to consult a medical expert were deemed to constitute ineffective assistance.