I-TEAM: Judge grants plaintiffs permission to seek punitive damages against St. Vincent’s in cases involving former orthopedic surgeon

Dr. David Heekin is accused of botching hundreds of surgeries while allegedly impaired by progressive neurological condition

A judge has found that plaintiffs submitted evidence sufficient to permit a jury to conclude that top executives at St. Vincent’s were grossly negligent when they didn’t stop an orthopedic surgeon from operating despite a pattern of serious complications and reports of the doctor slurring his words and behaving erratically.

JACKSONVILLE, Fla. – A judge has found that plaintiffs submitted enough evidence to permit a jury to conclude that top executives at St. Vincent’s Hospital were grossly negligent when they didn’t stop an orthopedic surgeon from operating despite a pattern of serious complications and reports of the doctor slurring his speech and behaving erratically.

Because of that, the judge says, plaintiffs in medical malpractice lawsuits involving that doctor can amend their complaints to seek punitive damages against St. Vincent’s.

“Punitive damages translate to mean punishment,” said attorney Shannon Schott, who is not affiliated with the cases involving Dr. Heekin. “There is not a limit to how much a plaintiff can ask for.”

As the News4JAX I-TEAM has been reporting, more than 400 patients of former orthopedic surgeon Dr. David Heekin are accusing him of operating while impaired by a progressive neurological condition that caused him to lose his balance and impulse control and slur his speech.

The order hones in on what plaintiffs claim St. Vincent’s Chief Medical Officer and another top official knew about Dr. Heekin’s conduct and when they knew it. The judge found that plaintiffs identified evidence that they knew the doctor posed a risk to patients.

If a jury ultimately determines that high ranking employees acted with gross negligence, it could mean serious financial consequences for St. Vincent’s.

RELATED: New audio recordings added to lawsuits against doctor accused of botched surgeries | Deposition video shows former St. Vincent’s surgeon accused of botching procedures slurring speech, having outbursts | Lawsuits allege Ascension St. Vincent’s knew doctor wasn’t fit to operate, but allowed him to perform surgeries | Legal filings show St. Vincent’s agrees to participate in arbitration proceedings to resolve some claims threatened against hospital, David Heekin

According to Circuit Court Judge Bruce Anderson, plaintiffs submitted evidence that supports their position that St. Vincent’s Chief Medical Officer Dr. Jeff Mathison and Senior Vice President Tom VanOsdol, who likened his role to that of President and CEO, should have stopped Dr. David Heekin from performing surgery.

The judge says plaintiffs’ evidence of Dr. Heekin’s worsening physical condition and patient outcomes that began in 2016 would provide a reasonable basis to allow the jury to find that St. Vincent’s failure to stop him was so reckless that it amounts to conscious disregard or indifference to the life and safety of their patients and gross negligence.

Because of that, the judge says, plaintiffs can now seek punitive damages.

Plaintiffs have submitted hundreds of pages of evidence, including the testimony of a nurse who said she went to upper management about a dozen times to raise concern about Dr. Heekin and patient safety. An independent orthopedic surgeon testified a pattern of poor outcomes from Dr. Heekin’s surgeries showed “a lack of competence far beyond routine compilations.”

Judge Anderson notes that evidence exists that Dr. Heekin’s slurred words, erratic behavior, adverse surgical outcomes, disruptive behavior and potential impairment were reported to the Chief Medical Officer Dr. Jeff Mathison.

Plaintiff’s evidence shows that in September of 2018, it was reported to Mathison that Dr. Heekin was slurring his speech and screaming at nurses and an injured patient. His response to the patient’s family was that Dr. Heekin was just “passionate” and had a speech impediment. In the following weeks, it was reported to Mathison Dr. Heekin crashed his car in the hospital parking lot, showed up to perform surgery on a weekend when none were scheduled, and appeared to have soiled himself in an airport. During that time period, plaintiffs say Dr. Heekin put in components for hip and knee replacements incorrectly– and that his patient Cindy Bonk died after a femur fracture during a hip replacement.

Anthony Bonk is her widower. “I just know that I lost a wife, you know, a good friend for 42 years,” he said.

Dr. Heekin continued to perform surgeries for more than a year.

Plaintiffs submitted audio recordings as evidence they say are the doctor slurring his speech during dictations immediately after surgeries in 2020.

Plaintiffs say St. Vincent’s Senior Vice President VanOsdol received a text message in January 2020 from a doctor saying he was seeing a “large uptake of SEVERE complications from Dr. Heekin” that would leave patients with “above knee amputations.” He went on to say he would need to stop seeing Dr. Heekin’s patients because he “couldn’t take care of them all.”

Bonk said he finds it disturbing the leadership at St. Vincent’s who were reportedly told about issues with Dr. Heekin are still there.

“Doctors take this code of ethics,” he said. “Why doesn’t administration do the same thing?”

St. Vincent’s had argued punitive damages should not be allowed because the plaintiffs had declined their offer to go through arbitration that despite their titles, Mathison and VanOsdol were middle managers. The judge rejected both of those arguments.

St. Vincent’s also argued it’s not liable for punitive damages because it made efforts to have Dr. Heekin monitored during surgeries and to enact a medical staff performance review committee. They also note Dr. Heekin had been cleared to operate by an independent physician.

The judge notes a jury may agree with those arguments but says there’s enough evidence for punitive damages to be considered.

Neither Mathison nor VanOsdol have been implicated in any misconduct related to complaints against Dr. Heekin.

An attorney for St. Vincent’s declined to comment on the judge’s order.


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I-TEAM and general assignment reporter