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$6.5M verdict upheld in slander case

By Mary Jo Melone
3/25/2010 © Health News Florida

A South Florida hospital must pay a heart surgeon $6.5 million for breach of contract and slander, an appeals court has ruled. The slander: An executive said he wouldn’t send his “dog” to the surgeon.

The opinion from the Fourth District Court of Appeal upholds a lower court ruling against Lawnwood Regional Medical Center and Heart Institute, an HCA hospital in Fort Pierce. The cardiovascular surgeon who sued is Samuel Sadow. 

The verdict --$1.5 million for breach of contract and $5 million for slander -- could be appealed to the State Supreme Court. 

In the 32 page opinion, the appellate court came down hard on the hospital over the attack on the doctor’s reputation. The judges even quoted the Ninth Commandment: “Thou shalt not bear false witness against thy neighbor.” 

“In short,” the judges wrote, “the wrongdoing underlying the punitive damages in this case has Florida law’s most severe condemnation, its highest blameworthiness, its most deserving culpability.” 

Lawnwood Medical released a statement on Thursday to Health News Florida: "We are very disappointed in the opinion of the district court. We will look closely at our options and make a determination of how to move forward. But it is clear the district court felt that it is important that the Florida Supreme Court review this opinion."
Sadow referred questions to his lawyer, Richard Levenstein. “He’s feeling very good,” Levenstein said of his client. 

The decision, issued Wednesday, was the latest chapter of an 11-year legal battle between Sadow and the hospital. It began when the hospital denied Sadow privileges to do surgery in the open-heart institute, even though he had helped win state approval for it. Instead, the hospital gave a contract to another group. 

Levenstein said the hospital argued that “exclusivity was the preferred way to go. ..that way they had complete control over the institute.” 

According to the Palm Beach Post, Levenstein argued at trial that Sadow’s practice “plummeted” after that because doctors in St. Lucie County, where Lawnwood was and where most of his patients lived, no longer referred to him.

The appellate opinion said that Lawnwood officials never offered to retract what was said about Sadow. In court, the hospital’s lawyers called the words “rhetorical hyperbole” and that the executive who made the remark was “just kidding.” 

On appeal, the hospital’s lawyers said the $5 million slander award was excessive. Because the hospital argued it was excessive under the U.S. Constitution, the appellate court said, the State Supreme Court could review the award. 

--Mary Jo Melone can be reachedby e-mail. Questions or comments can be sent to Carol Gentry, Editor.