MIAMI – February 26, 2018 – Following a two week trial in Orlando, Florida, an Orange County jury entered its verdict last Friday 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. Florida Hospital is one of Adventist Health System’s major hospitals. Ahmad Chaudhry, M.D., brought his case pursuant to Florida’s Whistleblower Act which was enacted to protect employees, like Dr. Chaudhry, from retaliation when objecting to or refusing to participate in illegal conduct of an employer.
The Plaintiff alleged that Florida Hospital, and specifically its Heart and Lung Transplant Institute Director, Hartmuth Bittner, M.D., and the Hospital’s Administration, repeatedly engaged in violations of Florida’s patient safety laws, causing death and injury to over a dozen heart and lung transplant patients at Florida Hospital Orlando during the years 2013 and 2014. The plaintiff, Dr. Chaudhry, alleged that Florida Hospital knew that Dr. Bittner was an unsafe surgeon who repeatedly violated patient safety rules, yet Florida 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 several patient safety laws requiring hospitals to maintain competent medical staff, engage in proper peer review of its staff, discipline and suspend unsafe surgeons, and report adverse incidents to patients, their families, and to the Agency for Health Care Administration (“AHCA”).
For most of the second half of 2013, Dr. Chaudhry brought specific patient safety violations to the administration, including the following: that Dr. Bittner was intentionally ignoring the surgical clearance process for certain heart surgeries, causing an unacceptably high death rate more than double what it should be; Dr. Bittner was ignoring the patient safety and quality assurance rules of the hospital; Dr. Bittner dropped a surgical pledget, a foreign object, in a patient’s heart during a heart valve 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; that 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, due to excessive haste at the expense of precision, was having larger than expected numbers of lung transplant surgical complications, including anastomosis failures, diaphragm paralysis, and flail chest; Dr. Bittner was violating Florida law by making misleading, deceptive, and fraudulent representations impeding the ability for patients to obtain matching donor organs; and the Plaintiff alleged that Dr. Bittner lacked overall attention to patient well-being because Dr. Bittner practiced as if the patient safety rules don’t apply to him.
Furthermore, Dr. Chaudhry claimed that despite his mentioning the severe patient safety violations to various Florida Hospital administrators and top medical staff personnel, Florida Hospital chose not to conduct patient safety peer review, not to alert the patients or AHCA, nor discipline Dr. Bittner for his wrongful conduct in violation of Florida law.
While Florida Hospital administrators, through testimony and internal emails, acknowledged the patient safety violations regarding Dr. Bittner, and even identified the need for an external third party peer review, no peer review was ever done. Instead, Dr. Chaudhry alleged the administration made the site surveys the priority and elected to forego all peer review and discipline of Dr. Bittner.
The patient safety violations continued, and Dr. Chaudhry continued to follow up with the Florida Hospital administration objecting that the administration was doing nothing about the illegal conduct. The administration, after knowing about the patient safety violations for months, but with the site surveys looming, finally 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 formal medical staff peer review process directly, the administration internally noted that Chaudhry’s actions were “unacceptable” because Dr. Chaudhry, by reaching out to the Hospital’s 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.
Rather than complying with Florida law by acting on the patient safety violations, the administration changed its focus. The Florida Hospital administration, along with Dr. Bittner, began targeting 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 Florida Hospital administration that he was going to report the Hospital’s and Dr. Bittner’s illegal conduct to the UNOS site inspectors who were scheduled for the heart/lung transplant program’s initial site survey in mid-February, 2014.
Just days later, on February 4, 2014, Florida Hospital terminated Dr. Chaudhry, less than two weeks ahead of the UNOS site inspection. The Hospital insisted Dr. Chaudhry leave the premises immediately. Upon firing him, the administrator noted in an internal email, “it is clear he wants to make trouble” with the UNOS site survey.
At the end of February, 2014, about two weeks after the UNOS inspection, and only after firing Dr. Chaudhry, Florida Hospital finally did an internal data review of its heart and lung transplant program. During that same time, 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 and objections Dr. Chaudhry raised over the last year.
Dr. Chaudhry alleged further that due to Dr. Bittner’s refusal to cooperate with the Hospital’s findings, the Hospital ultimately terminated Dr. Bittner and voluntarily deactivated the lung transplant program for one year. But, the jury was not permitted to hear this evidence.
As a result of Florida Hospital terminating Dr. Chaudhry after only one year on the job, Dr. Chaudhry lost his career in the highly insular world of heart and lung transplant surgery. After being blackballed, Dr. Chaudhry was not able to find a new position as a heart and lung transplant surgeon, even after searching for several 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 and lung transplant, in Lexington, Kentucky.
The Plaintiff, Dr. Chaudhry, alleged that he suffered lost wages and loss of future earning capacity as well as noneconomic losses in the form of embarrassment, humiliation and emotional distress as a result of Florida Hospital’s retaliation against him.
The jury rendered a verdict finding Florida Hospital’s conduct to be illegal and against Florida’s patient safety laws, and further finding that Florida Hospital unlawfully retaliated against Dr. Chaudhry for objecting to and refusing to participate in Florida Hospital’s illegal conduct. In sum, the jury found that Florida Hospital violated Florida’s Whistleblower Act. The jury entered a verdict of $2.85 million for Dr. Chaudhry’s damages, 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 a 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.”
“The heart lung transplant program was a dangerous place. The law mandated that the Hospital act, and it should have acted immediately. 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 each year. 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 regarding Dr. Bittner’s care.”
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.
Ratzan Law Group, PA is a boutique trial practice that is dedicated to building and retaining a safe society through diligent and sophisticated advocacy. It champions its clients’ cases against powerful interests, including insurance companies, hospitals, manufacturers, doctors and corporations in order to hold wrongdoers accountable for the harm they do to others, and to help make sure it does not happen again. The firm focuses its practice on medical malpractice, product liability and commercial trials. For additional information, call (305) 374-6366 or log on to www.rwblawyers.com. Connect via Facebook, Twitter, and LinkedIn.