$6.4M award to Surgeon in Defamation Lawsuit

August 27, 2019

A Cardiac Surgeon won a $6.4M judgement against Memorial Hermann Hospital (MH).  An article in Becker’s Hospital Review describes the case in which Dr. Miguel Gomez had his outcomes reviewed by a new cardiac service line administrator in 2009. The raw data showed Gomez with a high mortality rate, but he and the chair of the hospital’s surgical peer review committee allegedly agreed that the data was invalid because it was not risk-adjusted and told the hospital to stop using the flawed data. 

Nonetheless, when Gomez moved his practice to another facility, he claims that MH sought to damage his reputation to retain his patients. He alleged that MH shared the flawed data with his referral sources, claiming “it was a safety issue”.  

At trial, the jury awarded Dr. Gomez the $6.4M in 2017, and this award was upheld by the appellate court on appeal.  MH is reportedly considering another appeal, claiming that their quality review process is not meant to single out an individual physician but rather to improve clinical processes.

EHC NOTE: The case described highlights the potential exposure from the use of quality data in a way which may actually be or may be perceived to defame a physician or to influence referral patterns. While we do not know the “apples to apples” applicability of the outcome data related to Dr. Gomez’ cases as compared to his peers, we can assume that there is a plausible argument that the raw differences are explainable by case complexity and/or patient acuity. 

This case should be kept in mind by any hospitals considering the use of quality or outcome data in a way which may negatively impact a physician. The data should be unimpeachable, risk-adjusted and only shared in proper forums which are designed for quality oversight and process improvement, not for altering referral patterns and damaging practices. It is often helpful to consider how any potentially negative data, if shared, would be viewed by lay people if subjected to the harsh spotlight of a trial in the future. Memorial Hermann has 6.4 Million reasons to remember that expensive lesson.