News / Toronto

Anesthetist who sexually assaulted sedated patients loses appeal

TORONTO — A "touchy-feely" anesthesiologist handed a 10-year sentence for sexually assaulting 21 sedated women during surgery has failed to have his conviction overturned.

In a decision Friday, Ontario's top court ruled that the judge who convicted Dr. George Doodnaught after a 76-day trial was bang on.

"The grounds of appeal advanced track closely the submissions made to, and rejected by, the trial judge," the Court of Appeal said. "They are the subject of lengthy and detailed reasons which describe the findings of fact essential to proof of guilt and the evidentiary stuff of which those findings were made."

WARNING: Graphic details follow.

Doodnaught, who is in his late 60s, was convicted in November 2013 on all counts for assaulting women, who ranged from 25 to 75 years old, while they were semi-conscious at the North York General Hospital. Among other things, Doodnaught inserted his penis into women's mouths, used some for masturbation, and sexually fondled others over a four-year period.

The defence never argued the women fabricated their complaints or colluded with one another, but at trial and on appeal suggested the complainants may have been hallucinating while under anesthetic. Doodnaught's lawyers further argued that the assaults, in the confined space of an operating theatre close to others in the surgical team, could not have happened.

Superior Court Justice David McCombs rejected the defence arguments, siding with the prosecution that Doodnaught had the opportunity to commit the assaults from behind a screen and that the women's accounts of what happened were honest and realistic.

McCombs found Doodnaught's closeness to patients during surgery didn't draw suspicion because he was known as a "touchy-feely" doctor who stroked a patient's cheek or hair to soothe her during procedures. The judge also lambasted him for compounding his victims' distress by trying to make them believe they were somehow responsible for what happened.

On appeal, the doctor argued the evidence at trial fell short of establishing beyond a reasonable doubt that the offences actually happened. His lawyers pointed at expert evidence about the hallucinogenic properties of the anesthetics in support of their position.

"This case is overwhelming only if one presumes that the possibility of drug-induced dream-like states is impossible, as the trial judge did," Doodnaught's lawyers argued on appeal. "The trial judge failed to adequately consider the defence submission that a significant proportion, indeed the majority, of the alleged incidents were impossible."

The Appeal Court would have none of it.

The higher court noted McCombs had even visited the operating rooms in which the anesthetist had worked to gain a better understanding of the layout before finding that Doodnaught did indeed have the opportunity to commit the assaults as alleged.

The Appeal Court also found the judge had carefully looked at the expert evidence on whether patients might hallucinate about sexual experiences, noting no witness had ever heard of a case of multiple allegations of sexual assault on patients under the kind of sedation Doodnaught administered.

"The appellant's quarrel is not rooted in any legal principle so far as I can determine but rather in the factual findings the trial judge made," Justice David Watt wrote for the Appeal Court. "Those factual findings put paid to the defence position that the conduct each complainant honestly believed took place — and which amounted to sexual assault — simply never happened."

Doodnaught's medical licence has been suspended for several years but a disciplinary hearing that could see him barred from ever practising again has been awaiting the outcome of the appeal.

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