California doctor who spoke against hospital wins lawsuit

Physicians say the ruling confirms their right to advocate on behalf of patients without fear of a lawsuit. The hospital is considering an appeal.

By Amy Lynn Sorrel — Posted July 17, 2006

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A California appellate court tossed out a defamation lawsuit that the owner of a large hospital filed against a physician who spoke out about the company's questionable financial state.

The Fourth Appellate District Court in June dismissed Integrated Healthcare Holdings Inc.'s case against Michael Fitzgibbons, MD, under the state anti-SLAPP [Strategic Lawsuits Against Public Participation] statute, a law that prevents misuse of the legal system to chill criticism on public interest issues. The court also ordered IHHI to pay attorney's fees to Dr. Fitzgibbons, a former chief of staff at Western Medical Center Santa Ana.

Doctors are calling the ruling a victory that reaffirms their right to advocate on behalf of their patients without fear of retaliation.

"Clearly this means physicians are able to comment on the conditions in their hospitals and work to improve quality of care as a fundamental rule," Dr. Fitzgibbons said. The California Medical Assn. and the AMA/State Medical Societies Litigation Center filed a friend-of-the-court brief in support of the doctor, contending that the lawsuit was designed to silence his criticism of the hospital owner.

IHHI sued Dr. Fitzgibbons after he sent an e-mail to fellow medical staff members stating that the firm appeared to be "underwater" after it defaulted on more than $50 million in loans in May 2005.

IHHI contended that the physician's comments were slanderous and jeopardized contract negotiations with Blue Cross of California, which received a copy of the e-mail. IHHI had taken over Western Medical and three other hospitals from Tenet Healthcare Corp. beginning in 2004, throughout which time IHHI's financial health had been the subject of state Senate hearings.

A trial court declined to dismiss the lawsuit based on the anti-SLAPP law. The appeals court reversed the lower court ruling, stating that "we have little trouble concluding [Dr.] Fitzgibbons' e-mail message concerned 'a public issue.' "

IHHI President Larry B. Anderson said the company is considering an appeal.

"The court's decision was unfortunate because Dr. Fitzgibbons' note was designed to damage the hospital, and it had that effect," he said.

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