Paul H. Deutsch, M.D. v. Backus Corporation d/b/a The William W. Backus Hospital: A Norwich doctor was awarded $139,857 after a Hartford jury determined that a Norwich hospital acted in bad faith when it suspended the doctor for professional misconduct based on false information.
For several years starting in 2005, Dr. Paul H. Deutsch of Norwich faced accusations that he had improperly accessed patients’ medical records online using another doctor’s password and then forwarded those records to the Connecticut Department of Public Health, along with an anonymous complaint. His motive, Backus Hospital claimed, was to draw attention to allegedly improper care some patients were receiving from Backus Hospital doctors.
Deutsch was suspended for 31 days in 2005 following an internal investigation, and the hospital reported him to the state licensing board and to local and federal law enforcement authorities for computer crimes and Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA) violations. He adamantly denied the charges and appealed his suspension.
In 2008, following multiple appeals, Backus Hospital’s board of trustees cleared Deutsch of any wrongdoing, but the hospital refused to make a public announcement clearing his name. Deutsch filed his bad faith breach of contract lawsuit in 2010, claiming the hospital pursued its disciplinary action against him despite never having evidence he committed wrongdoing.
The hospital’s actions “sullied the reputation of a highly regarded primary-care doctor whose reputation was impeccable,” said attorney Mary Alice Moore Leonhardt of Moore Leonhardt & Associates in Hartford. “Dr. Deutsch became a pariah among the other doctors. It was a very unfortunate thing that was foisted upon him.”
Moore Leonhardt’s cocounsel was Jacques Parenteau of Madsen, Prestley & Parenteau in New London. Judge Kevin Dubay presided over the case, which was on the complex litigation docket in Hartford Superior Court.
Deutsch lost friends, colleagues and referral business during the eight years he spent fighting the accusations and going through the trial, Moore Leonhardt said. Deutsch is a primary-care physician with a private practice in Norwich and has been a medical staff member at Backus Hospital for 28 years.
The Hartford jury returned a unanimous verdict of nearly $140,000 after one hour of deliberations on Nov. 22. The jury asked Dubay if it could award an additional $1 million to Deutsch for his estimated loss of income and attorney fees for the trial and for defending himself in the hospital proceedings. Dubay declined that request.
For Backus Hospital, Hugh Murray III of Murtha Cullina’s Hartford office served as lead counsel. He received support from Ropes & Gray attorneys in Boston. No one from the defendant’s legal team responded to requests for comments.
Backus Hospital’s accusations were based on videotape from a security camera that the hospital claimed showed Deutsch in the records room at the same time that the patients’ imaging reports had been accessed. In 2005, Deutsch asked hospital officials to see the video of him accessing the records, but he wasn’t shown the video until after the hospital’s internal investigation and initial suspension, his lawyers said.
The video became part of the evidence presented at Deutsch’s trial. It shows that “he didn’t enter the records room until eight minutes after the patient records were accessed,” Moore Leonhardt said.
Also in 2005, Deutsch requested that the hospital bring in a forensics expert to audit the hospital’s computers to see which records were accessed and when, but he learned at his administrative hearing that the hard drives had been destroyed, according to his lawyers.
“The jury obviously recognized the grave injustice done to Dr. Deutsch by senior hospital administrators,” Parenteau said. “The evidence before the jury established Backus Hospital withheld evidence that would have established his innocence before any charge was brought. Dr. Deutsch should never have been placed in a position where he had to defend himself against a false claim.”
Moore Leonhardt believes Deutsch was targeted by the hospital because of ongoing disagreements Deutsch had with the hospital’s medical director at the time, Dr. W. Gordon Van Nes. Deutsch often clashed with Van Nes because Deutsch felt his patients needed to stay in the hospital longer and he didn’t want to discharge them on an earlier-release schedule that Van Nes wanted to follow.
When their disputes arose, they brought in third-party arbiter Qualidigm, a national health-care consulting and research company in Wallingford. After Qualidigm reviewed the patients’ situations, “Dr. Deutsch was found to have made the appropriate decisions” by keeping them in the hospital longer, Moore Leonhardt said.
Deutsch also had filed written complaints against Van Nes to hospital officials based on Deutsch’s belief that he was being pressured to release his patients early, Moore Leonhardt noted.
Deutsch said in a statement that he was grateful and thankful for the jury’s decision.
“What was done to me was as wrong as it was deliberate, but I would have never given up fighting to ensure my reputation was restored and the maliciousness of [the hospital's] actions was exposed.”
The case presented another challenge for Moore Leonhardt and Parenteau, based on the Healthcare Quality Improvement Act that entitles hospitals to immunity regarding professional review decisions. Before the hospital could be exposed to damages, Deutsch’s attorneys had to prove the hospital failed to uphold one of four standards: making a reasonable effort to obtain the facts of the matter; making decisions that are warranted based on the facts gathered; providing fair hearings to the physician; and making decisions that promote quality health care.
“We overcame this presumption in favor of the hospital,” Moore Leonhardt said.
There is, however, some unfinished business for Moore Leonhardt and Parenteau. They will appeal the court’s dismissal of claims that would have entitled Deutsch to punitive and emotional distress damages.•