Truly reprehensible: 14 years' jail for Hep C doctor
A drug-addicted anaesthetist who infected 55 women with hepatitis C has today been jailed for at least 10 years.
Supreme Court Justice Terry Forrest said he considered James Peters’ criminally culpable conduct "truly reprehensible".
Justice Forrest said Peters had breached the trust every patient places in their treating doctor.
Doctor James Latham Peters leaving court after pleading guilty to 55 counts of infecting patients Hepatitis C while they were undergoing pregnancy terminations at Croydon Medical Clinic. Photo: Justin McManus
Peters’ victims had suffered significant emotional trauma because of his actions.
‘‘At 63, you are professionally disgraced, de-registered, socially isolated and facing imprisonment for a large proportion of the rest of your life - perhaps all of it,’’ the judge said.
‘‘For what? For succumbing to an addiction that has compromised every aspect of your life.
‘‘For infecting 55 vulnerable young women who placed their absolute trust in your professional skill and integrity.
‘‘For giving them a virus from which there is no certain recovery.
‘‘For placing most of them at risk of of developing cirrhosis of the liver and liver cancer.
‘‘For causing everyone of them to suffer significant emotional trauma.
‘‘Your predicament, and theirs, can be traced to one poisonous tap-root. Your uncontrolled addiction to narcotics, and in particular Fentanyl.’’
Justice Forrest said Peters had been addicted for many years, knew he had hepatitis C and knew the virus could be transmitted to others.
‘‘You breached the great trust that every patient places in his or her treating doctor.’’
Peters was jailed for a total of 14 years with a non-parole period of 10 years.
Outside court, investigating officer detective senior sergeant Paul Robotham said the sentence handed down to Peters ‘‘should serve as a warning to all, especially those in the health industry that any abuse of community trust will be thoroughly investigated and dealt with accordingly’’.
Slater & Gordon medical negligence lawyer Julie Clayton, who is suing Peters, the director of the Croydon Day Surgery and the Australian Health Practitioner Regulation Agency on behalf of 50 women infected with hepatitis C, said Peters’ jailing had brought some victims ‘‘some welcome degree of closure and some modicum of comfort ’’.
‘‘For others though the sentence doesn’t bring any comfort because they’re left with unanswered questions. How could this be allowed to happen in Victoria in the 21st century?.’’
Ms Clayton said the victims had mixed emotions about the minimum 10-year jail term handed to Peters.
‘‘Everybody’s reasonably pleased that it wasn’t less. There are some women who have already said they don’t feel it’s adequate.’’
Peters had pleaded guilty to 55 counts of negligently causing serious injury to the patients by injecting himself with pre-filled syringes of Fentanyl - an opioid used in general anaesthesia - in theatre at Croydon Day Surgery. He then administered the remaining drug to the patients as they underwent pregnancy terminations.
During a pre-sentence hearing for Peters last month, the court heard the "complete incompetence" of Victoria’s Medical Practitioners Board led to Peters infecting the women.
While he was required to undergo regular urine drug screening as part of the board’s monitoring conditions after he confessed to having a drug problem, he was never tested for the drug he was addicted to, Fentanyl.
Peters had a history of drug abuse as well as convictions for possessing a drug of dependence and falsifying prescriptions when he infected the women with the potentially deadly blood disease between June 2008 and November 2009.
While he had informed the medical board - which was abolished under subsequent legislation - about his addiction to Fentanyl and pethidine in 1996, Peters failed to disclose his hepatitis C status.
The health department, which the court heard would have been aware he was a doctor being monitored for a Fentanyl addiction, was told as soon as he tested positive to the disease, but did not pass on the information.
Despite being suspended by the board while he sought help for his addiction, Peters was allowed to return to work under certain monitoring conditions.
Several women Peters infected revealed in their victim impact statements their devastation at having contracted a disease, commonly associated with drug addicts, through medical negligence at a time when they were vulnerable.
Defence barrister John Dickinson, SC, said that after injecting himself in private with fentanyl, Peters failed to realise the same syringe which contained "blowback", or his contaminated blood, was then used on the patients.
Mr Dickinson said after the hepatitis C outbreak from the clinic was exposed in 2010, Peters’ downfall had been "spectacular".