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Board blasts letter on Arab doctor

By Carol Gentry
10/7/2009 © Health News Florida

Florida’s Board of Medicine has voted to complain to the Florida Bar about a letter from a Broward lawyer to a malpractice insurer, urging the company to settle rather than try to defend an Arab doctor in South Florida.

Fort Lauderdale attorney Robert Spector represented the family of a 74-year-old man who died at Wellington Regional Medical Center in 2003 after developing an infection in his spine following a type of back surgery called a lumbar laminectomy.

The family sued several doctors in the case, but Spector’s letter involved only one, Jamal Abdel-Halim. Sent in August 2005 to the counsel for Abdel-Halim’s malpractice insurance carrier, the letter said, essentially, that the doctor stood no chance before a South Florida jury.

Spector asked whether “your company is willing to roll the dice on a client who makes a poor witness, who is educated and born in the Middle East, and who will be opposing an All-American family.”

While denying any personal prejudice, Spector wrote, “in these times, one must evaluate a case in light of the climate of today’s world.”

It’s not clear whether Spector’s letter played a role, but the doctor’s wife, Sue Halim, said the insurer did indeed settle the case for $200,000 over her husband’s objections. Florida law gives insurers the right to decide.

Sue Halim, an Israeli Arab, said her husband is from Lebanon. She said she believes Spector’s letter is discriminatory.

Spector did not return a call and e-mail from Health News Florida Tuesday or today.

He sent a copy of the court complaint to the Department of Health, as the law requires. DOH investigated and filed an administrative complaint. At first it looked as though it would end as most Board of Medicine cases do, with the doctor neither admitting nor denying wrongdoing but agreeing to pay a fine and accept a “letter of concern.” 

Lawyers who defend doctors say they advise their clients to take this route because the settlement is not considered "discipline" and would not constitute a "strike" under the state's so-called “three-strikes-and-you're-out” law. Based on a constitutional amendment passed by voters, the law says that after three cases of disciplinary action, a doctor’s Florida medical license is revoked.

Against his attorney’s advice, Sue Halim said, the neurologist refused to sign the settlement, saying he’d done nothing wrong. Instead, he took the gamble of an informal hearing, which – if the board ruled against him – would have resulted in a strike.

Abdel-Halim said the patient’s orthopedist and another neurologist called him in as a consultant only after the patient had become so ill that he was paralyzed. He also said the hospital lacked the equipment to run the test he had ordered.

His attorney, Aleida Mielke, questioned why DOH had filed charges against Abdel-Halim but not the other two doctors, who had been treating the patient all along. Board members said it was possible that the other two cases were still being investigated.

The board dismissed the charges against Abdel-Halim. Board member John Beebe said the physician made “heroic efforts to help the patient” after it was already too late, adding, “It’s just a terrible, unfortunate outcome.”

As for Spector’s letter, which came to light as part of the file, board members were livid. They voted to send a letter of protest to the Florida Bar, even though their counsel said it would do no good.

“If they’re going to discipline a lawyer for sending a nasty letter, they’ll be disciplining a lot of lawyers,” advised Asst. Attorney General Ed Tellechea. “Personally I wouldn’t waste my time.”

But board member Tully Patrowicz, a Daytona Beach ophthalmologist, said he’d take on the task. For something this “despicable,” he said, “I’m absolutely willing to waste my time.”

-- Carol Gentry, Editor, can be reached at 727-410-3266 or at this e-mail