St. Mary's surgeon files defamation lawsuit against CNN for 'reckless disregard for the truth'

The heart surgeon at the center of the CNN exposé in early June that led to the closing of St. Mary's Hospital's pediatric heart surgery program and the resignation of hospital CEO David Carbone has fired back against the cable news network with a lawsuit alleging defamation, according to My Palm Beach Post.

Michael Black, MD, the adult and pediatric congenital cardiothoracic surgeon at the West Palm Beach, Fla., hospital, filed a 208-page lawsuit against CNN in Palm Beach County Circuit Claims Court, claiming CNN "acted with actual malice when they published the defamatory June 1, 2015 article and video report," according to the lawsuit, and that "the preconceived goal of the June 1, 2015 article and video report was to manufacture an outrageous, headline-grabbing story about an incompetent, dishonest, and inexperienced doctor leading a surgical program in crisis and recklessly operating on young children to profit at the expense of those children's lives."

CNN had reported that by the end of 2013, the mortality rate for babies having heart surgery at St. Mary's was three times the national average, and the death rate for open heart surgeries was 12.5 percent, more than three times the national average of 3.3 percent, as cited by the Society of Thoracic Suregons.

The CNN report led to the closure of the St. Mary's Hospital's pediatric cardiac program in August, and two days later, Mr. Carbone resigned. In total, nine babies died following heart surgery during the program's existence between 2011 and 2013.

However, the lawsuit states the CNN defendants "knew at that time — and indeed, long before — that their defamatory statements about Dr. Black … were false, or at the very least, they recklessly disregarded the truth of those statements." The suit goes on to contend Mr. Carbone had informed CNN in a February 2015 letter that the mortality rate they had claimed for Dr. Black and the heart program was incorrect — more than three months before CNN published the article and video reports.

"The data you provided does not represent all cases and/or procedures performed as part of the program," the letter said, according to Dr. Black's lawsuit. "The mortality rate that you have manually calculated is inaccurate, as it is calculated as a percentage of only a portion of heart operations performed by the program."

Dr. Black, who is still on staff at St. Mary's, did not specify the dollar amount he is seeking in damages at trial, though he "seeks an award of compensatory damages for the reputational and economic harm caused by defendants' defamatory statements," according to the lawsuit.

CNN responded to the lawsuit with a statement, according to My Palm Beach Post: "We intend to fight this in the courts. We will fight hard in defense of our reporting and we expect to prevail."

Among the six defendants are CNN lead reporter Elizabeth Cohen, anchor Anderson Cooper, producer John Bonifield and employee Dana Ford, as well as Kelly Robinson, who contacted patients and nurses associated with Dr. Black, telling them he "kills babies" and leaves them "butchered" and "mangled," according to the report.

Note: This article was revised to correct the inaccurate statement that Kelly Robinson's baby was a patient of Dr. Black's who died. Dr. Black never operated on Ms. Robinson's baby. We regret this error.

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