Surgeon whistleblower awarded $4.7 million

Cedars-Sinai Medical Center in Los Angeles will have to pay almost $4.7 million to a surgeon who claims the hospital retaliated against him for blowing the whistle on unsafe practices in his department, unless the hospital manages to have the award overturned. The hospital already has spent as much as $1 million to appeal the arbitration decision, according to the informed estimate of the plaintiff's attorney.

In a 2009 arbitration, the hospital agreed to pay Hrayr K. Shahinian, MD, $4.7 million for economic, emotional and punitive damages, but then it asked a California appeals court to reverse that decision. The court recently denied Cedars-Sinai's request to strike down the arbitrated award.

Cedars-Sinai provided a statement to Healthcare Risk Management which says the hospital is considering a further appeal of the decision and claims that the surgeon's competence was an issue that was not adequately considered in the arbitration. "As a general rule, Cedars-Sinai does not believe it is appropriate to comment on matters pending in the judicial process. We are doing so now only to set the record straight in light of Dr. Shahinian's incomplete and inaccurate statements in his recent news release," the statement says. "Although this matter remains pending in the appellate system, Dr. Shahinian has made certain claims about the outcome of the process so far that are incorrect as to what both the arbitrator and Court of Appeal actually decided. He has also presented an incomplete and inaccurate picture, ignoring that the arbitrator rejected some of the very claims for which he says he was vindicated."

The crux of the case was that the hospital did not follow its own bylaws when restricting the surgeon's privileges, says the plaintiff's attorney, Robert C. Baker, JD, a partner with the law firm of Baker, Keener & Nahra in Los Angeles. That action ultimately led the arbitrator to side with Shahinian, he says.

Shahinian contends that the hospital punished him for complaining about patient safety and other concerns in the department. "Two witnesses testified that they targeted him because he complained," Baker says. Baker says he expects the hospital to appeal once more, this time to the California Supreme Court. The hospital's continued fighting almost defies logic, he says. Testimony from the Cedars-Sinai chief financial officer revealed that the hospital has $800 million in cash or cash equivalents, Baker says, an astounding sum which he says might explain why it is willing to continue fighting even after the arbitration.

"My educated guess is that since November 2009 they've spent probably at least a half million and maybe a million dollars on their appellate lawyers, and they've run up interest in the neighborhood of $600,000. That's on top of the $4.7 million the arbitrator told them to pay," Baker says. "They've got enough of a bankroll to continue pursuing this beyond anything that is remotely close to what everyone else would consider reasonable. They don't like this guy, and they're willing to spend a huge sum of money to get him."


• Robert C. Baker, JD, Partner, Baker, Keener & Nahra, Los Angeles. Telephone: (213) 241-0900.