Surgeon keeps $6.4M defamation award in feud with Memorial Hermann

A Texas appellate court on Aug. 15 affirmed a $6.4 million jury verdict in favor of a heart surgeon who alleged Houston-based Memorial Hermann Health System defamed him, according to Courthouse News Service.

Miguel Gomez, MD, sued Memorial Hermann in 2012, seeking punitive damages for defamation, business disparagement, tortious interference and restraint of trade. The lawsuit alleged Memorial Hermann's then-CEO Keith Alexander destroyed Dr. Gomez's reputation after he threatened to move his practice to another hospital.

According to court documents, Memorial Hermann hired Byron Auzenne in 2009 to lead its heart service line and review heart surgeons' mortality rates. The health system's data showed Dr. Gomez had a high mortality rate, which Dr. Gomez attributed to Memorial Hermann's use of raw data. He and the chair of the hospital's surgical peer review committee allegedly told Mr. Auzenne the data was invalid because it was not risk-adjusted and to stop using the flawed data.

Dr. Gomez thought his name had been cleared, but that was not the case. Dr. Gomez claimed Memorial Hermann sought to damage his reputation to retain his patients after he decided to move his practice to Houston Methodist West.

He alleged Memorial Hermann administrators cited the misleading data at a meeting in November 2011 and shared the data with other physicians who referred patients to Dr. Gomez. After the meeting, Mr. Auzenne allegedly told Dr. Gomez that he and Mr. Alexander decided the "data needed to be shared, that we needed to be a transparent organization, that this was a safety issue."

A Texas jury awarded Dr. Gomez $6.4 million in damages in 2017. Memorial Hermann appealed, arguing it had not defamed Dr. Gomez because Mr. Auzenne's allegedly defamatory statement had not been published.

The appellate court disagreed.

"We conclude that there was evidence that MHHS, through Auzenne, published the individual surgeon mortality data by presenting it to other doctors, who were capable of understanding its defamatory import," Texas First Court of Appeals Judge Evelyn Keyes wrote in a ruling joined by Judge Russell Lloyd.

The appellate court also disagreed with Memorial Hermann's argument that Dr. Gomez had failed to prove the data caused his referrals to decline.

In a statement to Courthouse News Service, Memorial Hermann said it was disappointed with the ruling and is considering an appeal.

"While we have the utmost respect for the judicial process, Memorial Hermann is disappointed with the court's ruling. At trial, Dr. Gomez questioned the system's quality review process, expressing concerns that he was unfairly targeted because his mortality data was misleading and made him look bad.

"However, our focus on quality data has never been about singling out one specific physician or physicians; rather we rely on that data to form the basis for our process, the same process widely accepted and utilized nationwide, to evaluate the quality of care provided by our physician partners. We had hoped the court would recognize this important distinction."

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