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Judge to decide on Children’s suit

Contends hospital is responsible in alleged abuse cases

A Suffolk Superior Court judge will decide whether to dismiss a lawsuit against Children’s Hospital Boston, after hearing arguments yesterday on the suit filed on behalf of 11 people who say they were abused by pediatrician Melvin D. Levine in North Carolina.

Levine, accused of sexually abusing dozens of children during medical treatments, had been the former chief of ambulatory pediatrics at Children’s Hospital. In 1987, he became a professor of pediatrics at the University of North Carolina at the University of North Carolina School of Medicine in Chapel Hill.

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He committed suicide last February.

A class-action suit had been filed against him at the time, but Levine had never faced criminal charges stemming from the allegations.

This lawsuit contends that Children’s Hospital could have prevented the abuses alleged in North Carolina if it had reported earlier complaints made about the doctor.

Yesterday, attorneys for Children’s Hospital argued that the case should be dismissed because the hospital had no responsibility to report complaints to institutions that employed Levine after he left Boston.

“There is simply no duty under Massachusetts law between Children’s Hospital and these North Carolina plaintiffs,’’ said Gail Ryan, an attorney for the hospital.

The lawsuit, she continued, could set a bad precedent.

“We’re talking about fundamental notions of negligence,’’ Ryan said. “[The lawsuit] would open up this court to any out-of-state litigant who wanted to come back in here and file a suit against any former employer for potential acts of their former employees years down the road.’’

But Mark Itzkowitz, an attorney for the North Carolina plaintiffs, said the hospital had received complaints about the doctor as early as 1967, the year after he began working there, and should have suspected that potential abuses could occur at other hospitals.

“The public is reliant on the medical community to police its own physicians,’’ Itzkowitz said.

Much of the arguments centered on timing: Itzkowitz said the hospital had first received a complaint about Levine in 1967, when the mother of a patient raised concerns with hospital staff, saying that her son said Levine had touched him inappropriately.

But attorneys for the hospital maintained that the hospital has no record of a 1967 complaint. They said no flags were raised about Levine until 1988, the year after he began working at the University of North Carolina, when a complaint was filed in federal court.

Levine was not convicted in that case.

After the hearing, Carmen L. Durso, another attorney representing the North Carolina plaintiffs, argued that the hospital’s responsibility in this case was the same as if an employee had an infectious disease.

The hospital, he said, would have a duty to inform others that they could get sick.

“Well, Levine was the Typhoid Mary of sexual abuse,’’ Durso said. “And he went out and he infected children.’’

Judge Merita A. Hopkins did not specify when she will make a decision on whether the suit can go forward.

Martine Powers can be reached at mpowers@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @martinepowers.
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