Following a two week trial in Orange County, Florida, a jury entered its verdict on February 23, 2018, against Florida Hospital for retaliating against one of its heart and lung transplant surgeons by wrongfully terminating him after he objected to and refused to participate in Florida Hospital's violation of Florida's patient safety laws. Ahmad Chaudhry, M.D., brought his case pursuant to Florida's Whistleblower Act.
The Plaintiff alleged that Florida Hospital, specifically its Heart and Lung Transplant Institute Director, Hartmuth Bittner, M.D., violated Florida's patient safety laws, causing death and injury to numerous patients during the years 2013 and 2014. Dr. Chaudhry alleged that Florida Hospital knew Dr. Bittner was an unsafe surgeon who repeatedly violated patient safety rules, yet the Hospital buried the truth in order to pass site surveys with the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services ("CMS") and with the United Network for Organ Sharing ("UNOS"). Dr. Chaudhry contended that Florida Hospital put its business (passing the site surveys meant tens of millions of dollars in annual revenue) ahead of patient safety. Dr. Chaudhry alleged that Florida Hospital violated patient safety laws requiring Hospitals to maintain competent medical staff, engage in proper peer review of its staff, discipline unsafe surgeons, and report adverse incidents to patients, their families, and to the Agency for Health Care Administration ("AHCA").
In 2013, Dr. Chaudhry brought numerous patient safety violations to the administration, including the following: that Dr. Bittner was intentionally ignoring the clearance process for certain heart surgeries, causing an unacceptably high death rate; Dr. Bittner was ignoring quality assurance rules; Dr. Bittner dropped a surgical foreign object in a patient's heart during a surgery, causing an increased risk for a stroke; the patient had a stroke within hours of the surgery, yet Dr. Bittner refused to order an MRI as recommended by the consulting neurologist; intra-operatively, Dr. Bittner refused to perform a requisite search for the foreign body, stating "It's not the first time a surgeon left a pledget in a patient's heart;" Dr. Bittner was having larger than expected numbers of lung transplant complications; Dr. Bittner was making fraudulent representations impeding the ability for patients to obtain matching donor organs; and Dr. Bittner lacked attention to patient well-being.
Dr. Chaudhry claimed that despite his objecting to the patient safety violations to administrators, Florida Hospital chose not to conduct peer review, not to alert the patients or AHCA, nor discipline Dr. Bittner.
While Florida Hospital, through testimony and internal emails, acknowledged the patient safety violations, and even identified the need for an external third party peer review, no peer review was ever done.
The patient safety violations continued, and Dr. Chaudhry continued objecting that the administration was doing nothing. The administration told Dr. Chaudhry there would be no peer review. When Dr. Chaudhry, frustrated by the administration's months of delay and refusal to act, sought to engage the peer review process directly, the administration internally noted that Chaudhry's actions were "unacceptable" because Dr. Chaudhry, by reaching out to the official peer review process, was "airing our dirty laundry in public." Dr. Chaudhry alleged that the Florida Hospital administration wanted to protect the program rather than discipline Dr. Bittner.
The administration and Dr. Bittner then changed its focus to Dr. Chaudhry by limiting his role in the program, prohibiting him from performing surgeries, and belittling him behind his back.
Ultimately, in late January, 2014, Dr. Chaudhry told the administration he was going to report their illegal conduct to the UNOS inspectors who were scheduled for the heart/lung transplant program's site survey in February, 2014.
Just days later, Florida Hospital terminated Dr. Chaudhry ahead of the site inspection. The Hospital insisted Dr. Chaudhry leave the premises immediately and noted in an internal email, "it is clear he wants to make trouble" with the UNOS site survey.
At the end of February, 2014, just after the UNOS inspection, and after firing Dr. Chaudhry, Florida Hospital finally did an internal review of its heart/lung transplant program. Florida Hospital finally expressed an intent to discipline Dr. Bittner. The Hospital, for the first time, acknowledged and corroborated many of the same patient safety violations Dr. Chaudhry raised over the last year.
As a result of Florida Hospital terminating Dr. Chaudhry after only one year on the job, he lost his career in the insular world of heart/lung transplant surgery. He was not able to find a new position as a heart/lung transplant surgeon, even after searching for years.
Within two months before the start of trial, Dr. Chaudhry was finally able to secure a position as a general cardiothoracic surgeon, not practicing in the more lucrative field of heart/lung transplant.
Dr. Chaudhry alleged that he suffered lost wages, loss of future earning capacity, and noneconomic losses as a result of the retaliation.
The jury entered a verdict of $2.85 million, including $1.25 million in past lost wages, $1.5 million in future loss of earning capacity, and $100,000 for noneconomic damages.
"This case lifts the curtain covering Florida Hospital's business practices," said Stuart N. Ratzan, Dr. Chaudhry's attorney. "The simple truth is, hospitals must put patient safety before business revenue and site surveys."
Stuart J. Weissman, a Ratzan Law Group partner who also tried the case, added, "Dr. Chaudhry is a courageous doctor and patient advocate who stood up against the conspiracy of silence that pervades the medical community. He lost his career as a transplant surgeon, but he stayed true to his principals and true to patient safety."
"Hospitals have to know that breaking the law, especially patient safety laws, will have consequences," Ratzan said. "The jury enforced the law in this important case and, by doing so, it helped protect all of us from harm and death in the future."
"Florida Hospital could have prevented death and injury to many of its patients. Medical error in hospitals is the third leading cause of death in the United States. Over 400,000 people die due to medical error in hospitals annually. But, it's not too late to do the right thing. The Hospital can still comply with Florida law by giving notice to the affected patients and their families, and still take action with the relevant state and federal agencies."
Ahmad Chaudhry, M.D. was represented by Stuart N. Ratzan, Esq., Stuart J. Weissman, Esq., and Evan Gilead, Esq., of Ratzan Law Group, P.A., Miami, Florida. Ratzan Law Group was assisted by Lincoln Connolly, Esq. of Lincoln J. Connolly Trials & Appeals, P.A.