UPDATE (6:22 P.M. PST, 3/8/19)
The San Diego County District Attorney’s Office reported on March 8, 2019 that Dr. Robert Stephens, an anesthesiologist accused of sexually assaulting patients, will not face charges related to this case.
Stephens asserted his innocence in a Team 10 Investigative Report published on February 22, 2019.
Read more about the case in the Team 10 report below.
SAN DIEGO (KGTV) - A local doctor is accused of sexually assaulting patients who were under anesthesia. In an exclusive interview, 10News investigative reporter Jennifer Kastner spoke to a former patient who says he was abused. She also sat down with the accused doctor for an interview. The doctor was cleared to return to work and denies any abuse.
Edward Braun of Alpine is the former patient. He says he found out when Scripps Mercy Hospital in Hillcrest called him and said that a nurse had reported the allegations.
“I’m sad. I can't believe somebody would do this,” Braun tells 10News.
Braun details the day he got the life-changing call from Scripps Mercy, notifying him that he may have been sexually assaulted by his anesthesiologist, Dr. Robert Stephens, while Braun was under anesthesia for surgery. “I was stunned. I was shaking,” he adds.
“What I was accused of never happened,” Dr. Stephens tells 10News. He says he doesn't even remember Braun's surgery. “Given that I've done 5,000 plus surgeries, only the remarkable ones stand out and that entire day was thoroughly unremarkable,” he adds.
However, it doesn't end with that day and that patient.
The allegations are from 2017 and are detailed in a report published by the California Department of Public Health. In the report, three nurses came forward, and mentioned multiple patients. One nurse claimed to have witnessed the anesthesiologist's hand "underneath the sheets on four other occasions" when patients were "under general anesthesia".
The report reveals that the nurse who allegedly witnessed Braun's assault claimed that the doctor's hand was under Braun's blanket, by Braun's groin. “She tried to pull the blanket off and he pulled it back and then she yanked it off and saw what he was doing,” says Braun. “I was still under anesthesia, unconscious when it happened,” he adds.
“I have never been inappropriate with any of my patients, nor would I ever be,” says Dr. Stephens. We ask, “Why would three nurses falsely accuse you of something so egregious?” “It's speculation and I don't want to speculate. I don't see any benefit of me speculating in that respect,” he responds.
According to the state report, the doctor said he sometimes may have had his hand "under the drapes" to "check EKG leads" and "monitor leads".
In the report, it appears the nurses were the ones who got in trouble for not immediately and appropriately reporting what they allegedly witnessed. However, there's no mention of any corrective action for the doctor. “[The nurses] report something and they get reprimanded for it? That's not right,” Braun tells us.
The hospital sent 10News the following statement:
“Patient safety is a top priority at Scripps. While we are unable to comment on pending litigation, we can share that following allegations of improper conduct, the Medical Staffs of Scripps Mercy Hospital, Scripps Green Hospital and Scripps Memorial Hospital, Encinitas suspended Robert Stephens, M.D., and initiated a hearing before an arbitrator. After five full-day evidentiary sessions, the arbitrator found that, while the initial action was reasonable, the suspension was no longer reasonable and Dr. Stephens should be permitted to return to work. Subsequently, the parties reached a confidential agreement. After the agreement was reached, Dr. Stephens voluntarily resigned his Scripps Medical staff memberships and all clinical privileges.”
Dr. Stephens says the arbitrator reviewed all the records and witness testimony. “[The arbitrator] ruled that not only was their story changing on that side but that their witnesses were not credible [and] their witnesses were not believable [and] I was credible and honest,” he explains.
San Diego Police have an active criminal investigation, according to a Deputy District Attorney who's involved in the case. That DA confirmed that prosecutors have fought all the way up to the California Supreme Court to get records from Scripps Mercy Hospital, but have so far been unsuccessful.
The DA agreed that his office is putting up a more aggressive fight than what's typical, but he wouldn't comment further about why.
“I put my life in this guy's hands to take care of me and he abused his power,” says Braun.
Last month, Braun sued Dr. Stephens, Scripps Health and Anesthesia Service Medical Group for assault, battery and negligence, among other complaints. Anesthesia Service Medical Group is Dr. Stephens’ former employer. It sent 10News the following statement:
“ASMG was shocked and saddened to learn of the allegations made against Dr. Robert Stephens, a former employee of ASMG. From the moment ASMG learned of these allegations, Dr. Stephens has not provided care to any ASMG patients. Dr. Stephens was hired after very extensive background and credentialing checks, and up until the time these accusations were made, there was nothing to indicate that Dr. Stephens might present a risk to patients. ASMG is committed to hiring only those physicians who will provide the highest level of patient care, and will aggressively defend itself against any claim that it negligently hired or negligently employed Dr. Stephens.”
“The initial allegations are very catchy and they do pack a punch but they aren't the truth,” says Stephens.
The other patients who may have been affected don't know it. According to the state report, they couldn't be identified.
Dr. Stephens is now practicing at Alvarado Medical Center near San Diego State University.