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Appeals Court Overturns Trauma Center Injunction For St. Pete's Northside Hospital

Leon County Judge John Cooper on June 30, 2022, in a screen grab from The Florida Channel.
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The Florida Channel
Leon County Judge John Cooper on June 30, 2022, in a screen grab from The Florida Channel.

An appeals court Tuesday rejected a Leon County circuit judge's decision to issue a temporary injunction against a potential trauma center at a St. Petersburg hospital.

The 15-page ruling by a three-judge panel of the 1st District Court of Appeal came in a battle about a proposal by Northside Hospital to open a trauma center.

Bayfront Health-St. Petersburg and Tampa's St. Joseph's Hospital, which have long operated trauma centers, have opposed the Northside proposal. Bayfront filed a lawsuit in March in Leon County circuit court, arguing that the Florida Department of Health should be blocked from allowing Northside to operate what is known as a “provisional” trauma center and seeking to prevent Northside from operating such a center.

Bayfront argued, at least in part, that state law allows only two trauma centers in Pinellas and Pasco counties — and that those slots were already filled. Leon County Circuit Judge Karen Gievers in April sided with Bayfront and issued a temporary injunction. But the appeals court disagreed, focusing heavily on how state law treats provisional trauma centers, which are approved to operate temporarily and can subsequently seek a more-permanent status.

The ruling, written by appeals-court Judge Joseph Lewis and joined by judges Scott Makar and Timothy Osterhaus, said parts of the law “do not impose need (for trauma centers) as one of the prerequisites for submitting, accepting, reviewing, or provisionally granting an application.” 

Tuesday's ruling was the second legal decision in less than two weeks that could bolster Northside's effort to open a trauma center. After Gievers issued the injunction, the Department of Health turned down Northside's application on other grounds. But an administrative law judge on Dec. 20 ruled the department's decision had been improper and that Northside had met criteria for opening a trauma facility.

Administrative Law Judge Robert Cohen's decision is a recommended order, which, under administrative law, goes back to the Department of Health for a final order. In his ruling, Cohen said the Department of Health had found only “minor” deficiencies in Northside's application and that the rejection appeared to be tied to Gievers' injunction.

He wrote that the department's “decision to deny the application was apparently motivated by an administrative decision that it should not approve an application while the injunction was in place — not by any genuine concerns regarding the merits of Northside's program.”