In three separate cases in 1997, nurses at Presbyterian Hospital of Dallas’s cardiac catherterization lab expressed concerns about Dr. Lawrence R. Poliner’s care of patients. When the director of the lab, Dr. John Levin, alleged to the hospital’s chief of cardiology, Dr. John Harper, that Poliner had also recently performed an emergency angioplasty on the wrong artery, the chair of department of internal medicine, Dr. James Knochel, confronted Poliner, and told him to voluntarily stop performing cardiac catheterizations while his privileges were reviewed or face termination. A six-doctor peer review committee met the next month, decided that Dr. Poliner had given substandard care in 29 out of 44 cases, and voted unanimously to suspend Dr. Poliner’s privileges at the lab.
So far, so good, right? After all, we’re told by the plaintiffs’ bar that the medical malpractice crisis would go away magically if the medical profession would just police its own, and that’s exactly what happened here. Can you imagine what a trial lawyer would do with the peer review committee’s conclusions if the hospital did nothing and had been sued for Poliner’s work afterwards?
Dr. Poliner eventually got his privileges reinstated a few months later in a hearing held before a different peer review committee of doctors after a number of prominent cardiologists spoke on his behalf; another appellate committee at the hospital found no wrongdoing by the initial peer review committee, who Poliner accused of seeking to eliminate him as “competition.” Not satisfied with exoneration, Poliner sought retribution. He, with the help of medical malpractice attorney Charla Aldous, sued the hospital, Knochel, Harper, Levin, and the six doctors on the peer review committee for supposed antitrust and “consumer fraud” violations, breach of contract, defamation, interference with contractual relations, and intentional infliction of emotional distress. The antitrust and consumer fraud claims were thrown out (BNA, “Antitrust Claims Are Eliminated From Physician Suspension Case”, Antitrust & Trade Reg. Rep., Nov. 7). So were the claims against the six peer review committee doctors, who had immunity under Texas Peer Review Immunity Statutes, which the state trial lawyers’ association had fought hard against in the legislature.
But the case against the other three doctors and the hospital proceeded. A jury found in favor of Dr. Poliner’s conspiracy theory that competitive malice motivated the entire affair. The jury’s proposed payday for six months’ missed work by the 60-year-old? $366 million: “$141 million to be paid by Dr. Knochel, $32 million each from Dr. Harper and Dr. Levin and $161 million from Presbyterian.” The hospital announced that it would appeal: “From time to time, hospitals and members of the medical staff leadership must make decisions relating to patient care and safety, and these decisions sometimes affect an individual doctor’s privileges at that hospital.” (Terry Maxon, “Dallas doctor awarded $366 million in damages”, Dallas Morning News, Aug. 28).