Profession

Houston hospital asked to rethink naming facility for attorney

Doctors say they shouldn't have to work in a building named for someone they believe contributed to rising medical liability costs.

By Mike Norbut — Posted Sept. 19, 2005

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Some physicians on staff at a Houston hospital are calling plans to rename the facility's medical office tower for a prominent local trial attorney an ironic twist at best and at worst, an affront to their profession.

They are asking St. Luke's Episcopal Hospital executives to reconsider plans to rename the tower after plaintiff lawyer John O'Quinn, who donated $25 million to the health center.

Doctors say they are opposed to the idea of working in a building named after a lawyer who represented plaintiffs in what they believe to be groundless medical liability cases.

About 90 doctors signed a petition addressed to the Rev. Don A. Wimberly, chair of St. Luke's Episcopal Health System, asking that the hospital consider a different way to recognize O'Quinn's gift.

"It offends us to have money we earned -- and which he took by suing us -- going to name after him a medical building in which we work each day," the petition reads.

Priscilla Ray, MD, a psychiatrist on staff at the hospital, wrote the petition. She said what bothered her is not that O'Quinn brought cases against physicians, but that she considers some of those cases frivolous.

"Cases that are groundless are what drive up not only costs, but mistrust between patients and doctors," Dr. Ray said. "If I've done something wrong, that's what courts are for. But it should be a lawsuit with a basis."

St. Luke's Episcopal Hospital spokeswoman Melinda Muse said O'Quinn's donation was the largest single contribution in its 51-year history. The money will be used to strengthen the hospital's cardiovascular research programs and help pay for a new patient care center.

Still, physicians say in their petition that the current medical liability environment, which was addressed in Texas by a voter-approved referendum that capped noneconomic damages at $250,000, is attributable to trial lawyers like O'Quinn.

"We believe him to bear partial responsibility for the litigious environment in which we work, not to mention the increased costs, due, for example, to higher medical liability insurance premiums and the increased cost of 'litigation-preventing' medical practice," the petition reads.

Doctors point to a recent court ruling to back up their concerns.

A federal judge in Corpus Christi, Texas, in June sanctioned O'Quinn's law firm, O'Quinn, Laminack & Pirtle, for its role in what she called falsely diagnosed and filed cases involving silicosis, an occupational lung disease. The judge ordered the firm to pay 1% of the costs of the three-day court hearing on the lawsuits.

In a 249-page opinion, U.S. District Judge Janis Graham Jack ruled that more than 10,000 plaintiff claims of silicosis were manufactured frauds designed to overwhelm the system "to prevent examination of each individual claim and to extract mass settlements." She ruled that 90 cases before her court, which applied to the vast majority of plaintiffs, should be remanded to Mississippi Supreme Court because the federal court was not the proper place to hear them. She remanded another case to a federal court in Georgia and kept jurisdiction over 19 lawsuits. In one of those cases, she threw out testimony and diagnoses by physicians involved.

"The court finds that filing and then persisting in the prosecution of silicosis claims while recklessly disregarding the fact that there is no reliable basis for believing that every plaintiff has silicosis constitutes an unreasonable multiplication of the proceedings," Jack wrote.

O'Quinn did not return several phone calls seeking comment. His John M. O'Quinn Foundation has donated money in the past to the Baylor College of Medicine, the University of Houston and other institutions.

Muse said the health system board had agreed to accept the donation and that it was appropriate to name a building after him because of the gift's size.

But he said there are few places to attach O'Quinn's name: the St. Luke's Hospital in The Woodlands, about 45 minutes away; the cardiovascular institute, which is already named after Denton A. Cooley, MD, founder of the Texas Heart Institute; or the office tower.

Switching a few names around could make everyone happy, though, Dr. Ray said. "I wouldn't mind working at the Cooley Medical Building," she said.

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