When Dr. Ahmad Chaudhry’s mother was dying of pulmonary disease, he promised himself he would become a lung transplant surgeon.
Chaudhry achieved that goal but was soon terminated for reporting a fellow surgeon’s allegedly reckless behavior on the job, an Orlando jury found Feb. 23. The verdict put Florida Hospital on the hook for $2.85 million in damages.
“They really ruined his career in this very small world,” said Chaudhry’s attorney, Stuart Ratzan of Ratzan Law Group in Miami. “They blackballed him in the heart-and-lung transplant community.”
Florida Hospital hired Chaudhry in 2012 to support Dr. Hartmuth Bittner, the lead surgeon for the hospital’s new heart-and-lung transplant program. Chaudhry soon started observing ”highly concerning and shocking” incidents in the operating room, according to the Florida Whistleblower Act lawsuit he filed in 2014.
In July 2013, Bittner dropped a wad of felt into a patient’s left ventricle and left it there despite Chaudhry imploring him not to do so, according to the complaint. The patient had a stroke, but Bittner refused to order an MRI. The patient’s family was never informed about the felt, Ratzan said.
Over the next few months, Chaudhry raised concerns about a dozen other risky decisions that led to unnecessary patient deaths and injuries, according to the lawsuit. Chaudhry’s complaints were documented by internal emails.
The doctor’s complaints started to change the way the hospital treated him, he claimed. The administration stopped allowing Chaudhry to perform lung transplants and reneged on an agreement to give him three weeks off to study for the board certification exam in thoracic surgery, according to the lawsuit.
“Our client continues to complain and object and demand discipline and peer review and reporting to the families and the [Florida] Agency for Health Care Administration, and the hospital never did it,” Ratzan said.
In February 2014, the hospital was due for a site visit from the United Network for Organ Sharing, which coordinates organ transplants in the U.S. Chaudhry told an administrator he planned to inform UNOS of his concerns about Bittner, according to the complaint. Days before the visit, Chaudhry was fired without cause.
At trial, Chaudhry sought compensation for the nearly four years he could not find work as a surgeon. Previously earning $300,000 a year, Chaudhry took up a series of odd jobs, including conducting home health visits for insurance purposes.
“This guy’s a heart-and-lung transplant surgeon trained at UCLA, and he’s going to people’s houses for insurance companies filling out forms,” Ratzan said of his client, who just before trial accepted a position as a cardiothoracic surgeon in Kentucky.
At trial, Bittner took the stand and denied Chaudhry’s allegations. Defense counsel from GrayRobinson in Orlando argued Chaudhry was fired because he failed his board certification exam and because he failed to bring in enough business as the transplant program was getting off the ground.
“But of course none of that was documented, and none of that was told to him,” Ratzan said.
Ratzan’s colleagues Stuart Weissman and Evan Gilead and co-counsel Lincoln Connolly of Lincoln J. Connolly Trials & Appeals in Miami argued internal communications showed Chaudhry was fired in retaliation for his complaints about Bittner. In one email at the time of the firing, an administrator said “it is clear he wants to make trouble” with the UNOS survey, according to plaintiffs counsel.
Bittner was later terminated, and the transplant program was temporarily shut down, Ratzan said. The attorneys were not allowed to present those facts to the jury.
Jurors sided with Chaudhry, finding the hospital fired him in retaliation for engaging in protected activity. The $2.85 million award included $1.5 million for loss of earning capacity, $1.25 million for lost earnings in the past and $100,000 for emotional damages.
Plaintiffs counsel said Chaudhry is considering continuing his crusade now that the case is over, alerting state agencies and affected patients about the conduct he said he witnessed.
“Dr. Chaudhry is a courageous doctor and a patient advocate who stood up against the conspiracy of silence that pervades the medical community,” Weissman said in a statement. “He lost his career as a transplant surgeon, but he stayed true to his principles and true to patient safety.”
The GrayRobinson defense team was David Oliver, Mayanne Downs, Jason Zimmerman and Brock Magruder. They referred a request for comment to Florida Hospital.
“Patient safety is our top concern,” the hospital said in a statement. “The allegations in this case are without merit — as evidenced by the court’s dismissal of most of the counts brought against us — and we stand by our arguments as presented to the court. The court has yet to rule on key motions made during the trial, which will determine if some or all of the verdict can stand. As we wait for the court’s remaining rulings, we are evaluating our next steps.”
Case: Dr. Ahmad Z. Chaudhry v. Adventist Health System Sunbelt Case No.: 2014-CA-13278-O Description: Wrongful termination Filing date: Dec. 30, 2014 Verdict date: Feb. 23, 2018 Judge: Orange Circuit Judge Julie O’Kane Plaintiffs attorneys: Stuart Ratzan, Stuart Weissman and Evan Gilead, Ratzan Law Group, Miami; Lincoln Connolly, Lincoln J. Connolly Trials & Appeals, Miami Defense attorneys: David Oliver, Mayanne Downs, Jason Zimmerman and G. Brock Magruder, GrayRobinson, Orlando Verdict amount: $2.85 million