A panel of judges in California's Fourth Appellate District has upheld a $5.7 million award to a doctor who sued his employer–a major hospital company in Orange County–for retaliating against him after he raised questions about the company's commitment to patient care.
In Feb. 2013, an Orange County jury sided with Dr. Michael Fitzgibbons, a internal medicine specialist at Western Medical Center in Santa Ana, who claimed the hospitals' owner, Integrated Healthcare Holdings, Inc (IHHI) had sought to destroy his reputation when he refused to stop speaking publicly about his concerns that IHHI was literally hazardous to the health of his patients. More alarmingly, Fitzgibbons also argued that a high-ranking IHHI executive used company funds to hire criminals to help set him up on phony gun and drug charges stemming from an alleged road rage incident that apparently never happened.
A few months after that verdict, Judge Gregory Lewis overturned the verdict, arguing that "the jury's verdict was not supported by substantial evidence concerning vicarious liability or ratification."
Unless the California Supreme Court takes up the case, the appeals court's latest ruling upholding the jury's original verdict means that IHHI will now have to pay Fitzgibbons the original multi-million-dollar award, plus interest.
"Obviously I was pleased with the court of appeal because they reinstated the jury's verdict," Fitzgibbons said in a recent interview with the Weekly.
The Weekly has written numerous articles on Fitzgibbons and his lawsuit against IHHI, a case that goes back almost 10 years. On June 28, 2006 Santa Ana police arrested Fitzgibbons at Western Med after discovering a gun and gloves in his car. The cops asserted that a pair of 911 callers had reported that a man matching the doctor's description and driving a vehicle similar to his had waved a gun during an alleged road rage incident. Fitzgibbons denied the gun belonged to him and claimed it had been planted there to discredit him, given his vocal criticism of IHHI.
No physical evidence was ever produced to tie Fitzgibbons to the crime and the 911 callers were never identified; in any case, prosecutors refused to charge him. Later, in a deposition, a high-ranking IHHI executive said under oath that he overheard another executive, Dr. Bruce Mogel, who has since left IHHI, boasting that he had arranged for the arrest to take place. Evidence obtained from Mogel's computer by IHHI and turned over to Fitzgibbons' attorneys showed a pattern of questionable payments that may or may not have been used to finance the gun-planting operation.
Given that the case has dragged on for nearly a decade, Fitzgibbons says he's eager to put the entire affair behind him. "The good news," he said, "is that we get interest on the verdict of ten percent a year, and it's been two years, so that's another million."