Judge Overturns Doctor's Multi-Million-Dollar Whistleblower Award

A few months ago, it appeared that all the years Dr. Michael Fitzgibbons spent struggling to clear his name had paid off--to the tune of $5.7 million.

That's the amount an Orange County jury awarded him on Feb. 13, after finding that Integrated Healthcare Holdings, Inc, (IHHI) the company that owns the hospital where Fitzgibbons works, Western Medical Center, had retaliated against him for questioning the company's business practices and patient care standards--even planting a gun in his car in an effort to discredit him.

But IHHI appealed the verdict and yesterday a new judge issued a stunning ruling in the case.

On May 1, Orange County Superior Court Judge Gregory H. Lewis tossed out the jury's verdict in favor of Fitzgibbons and ordered that not only should IHHI not have to pay the doctor $5.7 million, but that he should pay the company's legal bills. In his ruling, Lewis states that "the jury's verdict was not supported by substantial evidence concerning vicarious liability or ratification."

Specifically, Lewis ruled, Fitzgibbons did present plenty of evidence that IHHI's former chief executive officer, Bruce Mogel, had laundered company cash to hire a "thug" who likely planted a gun in the doctor's car to have him arrested in a bizarre road rage incident that both sides in the recent trial acknowledge never happened. However, the judge argued, the doctor failed to convincingly show that IHHI had "ratified" this conduct, which arose not from Mogel's job function, but rather a "personal grudge."

Despite the fact the jury heard evidence that Fitzgibbons was handcuffed and taken to the police station after being falsely arrested for possession of a gun that was planted in his car, and how he later found drugs planted in the same vehicle, Lewis found that the doctor failed to quantify psychological damages that warrant such a large cash award.

"The award for only emotional distress is completely out of line with similar injuries in other cases," he wrote. "Plaintiff failed to introduce any evidence of medical expenses or loss of income . . . Plaintiff was not hospitalized or medically treated. He did not take any medication . . . While Plaintiff sustained embarrassment, the emotional distress was not of a substantial quality or duration. At worst, some other doctors poked fun at him."

Fitzgibbons says he plans to appeal the ruling.

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