California high court shields peer reviewers

Hospitals praised the protection, but some doctors say the ruling gives them little recourse for unfair discipline.

By Amy Lynn Sorrel — Posted Aug. 21, 2006

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The Supreme Court of California in July ruled that peer review committees are protected under a state law that prohibits unfounded lawsuits from being filed to chill free speech on public issues.

Judges unanimously dismissed, under the anti-SLAPP (Strategic Lawsuits Against Public Participation) statute, a defamation case that general practice physician George Kibler, MD, filed against Northern Inyo County Local Hospital District. Dr. Kibler sued the hospital claiming the peer review committee wrongfully suspended his privileges.

In its decision, the high court concluded that peer review is an "official proceeding authorized by law" and "serves an important public interest" within the protections of the anti-SLAPP statute. To find otherwise "would further discourage participation in peer review by allowing disciplined physicians to file harassing lawsuits" instead of addressing grievances within the peer review system, Justice Joyce L. Kennard wrote.

The medical community, however, is split on how it believes the ruling will impact peer review. The case sparked the California Hospital Assn. and the California Medical Assn. to file friend-of-the-court briefs on opposing sides.

"For a lot of physicians peer review is not fun and leaves them open to lawsuits from disgruntled physicians whose standard of care is subpar. This [ruling] will help protect them from those lawsuits," said Lois J. Richardson, CHA vice president and legal counsel.

The CMA, which supported Dr. Kibler, disagreed.

Immunity statutes already give ample protection to peer review, and adding another layer with the anti-SLAPP statute, "will make it virtually impossible for anyone to obtain compensation for abusive peer review," said CMA General Counsel Gregory M. Abrams.

Dr. Kibler settled the case with the hospital, but will be responsible for the hospital's legal costs related to the anti-SLAPP motion, Abrams said.

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