I-TEAM: Former Ascension CEO compelled to testify at deposition in negligence lawsuits

A former orthopedic surgeon at Ascension St. Vincent’s accused of operating while impaired in hundreds of lawsuits

A top executive for Ascension St. Vincent’s must testify at a deposition as the health system defends hundreds of medical malpractice lawsuits focused on a former orthopedic surgeon at their Riverside hospital.

JACKSONVILLE, Fla. – A top executive for Ascension St. Vincent’s must testify at a deposition as the health system defends hundreds of medical malpractice lawsuits focused on a former orthopedic surgeon at their Riverside hospital.

The suits claim the hospital allowed Dr. David Heekin to operate on patients for years even as he was allegedly suffering a progressive neurological condition that caused him to lose his balance and slur his speech. The suits allege he caused devastating injuries and even the death of one patient.

Ascension St. Vincent’s had been trying to protect the former CEO from being compelled to give deposition testimony under a Florida law known as the Apex Doctrine, which protects top government officials and corporate executives from “harassing and abusive” depositions sought for “no legitimate reason.”

PREVIOUS STORIES: I-TEAM: 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

A trial court judge previously ruled that Ascension did not meet their burden in showing the former CEO should be protected from being deposed, and now an appeals court has denied a request to review that ruling.

In an appeal filed last December, they argued lower court judge Bruce Anderson incorrectly ruled that former CEO Tom VanOsdol had “unique, personal knowledge” of the issues involved in the lawsuits.

But now, an appeals court denied their argument without giving an explanation.

Attorney Curtis Fallgatter, who is not affiliated with the case, explains what this kind “per curiam” response signifies.

“A per curiam decision means don’t agree with any of that…Judge Anderson was correct,” Fallgatter said.

He said because of that decision, VanOsdol will have to testify in a deposition.

“That’s where the buck stops,” Fallgatter said. “No appeal can be taken to the Florida Supreme Court.”

According to Ascension’s website, VanOsdol was the top executive for Ascension’s Florida and Gulf Coast ministry from 2017 until this year.

The lawsuits focus on 2016-2020. Plaintiffs claim during that time, Dr. Heekin committed hundreds of medical errors because he was affected by a progressive neurological condition that led to diminished motor skills and cognitive ability, as well as angry outbursts, impaired judgment, gait disturbances, and slurred speech.

In an affidavit filed under oath last year, VanOsdol said he wasn’t involved in day to day operations, so he didn’t have unique, personal knowledge of issues involving Dr. Heekin.

READ: Affidavit of Tom VanOsdol | Order denying St. Vincent’s motion for protective order as to the deposition of Tom VanOsdol

But Judge Anderson found VanOsdol received at least one complaint from a local orthopedic surgeon about a number of concerning and potentially very poor outcomes for patients of Dr. Heekin, including patients they said would need above knee amputations. Plaintiffs said VanOsdol responded he would put them in touch with their chief medical officer and it was important to investigate. Judge Anderson found St. Vincent’s never disclosed the existence of texts among them in court and that VanOsdol’s sworn statement “lacked candor and veracity.”

This year, VanOsdol became Ascension’s Executive Vice President and Chief Mission Integration Officer. His bio on Ascension’s website says he provides strategic leadership to advance Ascension’s Christian commitments, continuing the healing mission of Jesus Christ.

VanOsdol also serves on the board of directors of JEA, and until October was the Chair of the Florida Hospital Association Board. Those entities are not involved in the litigation involving Dr. Heekin.

St. Vincent’s attorneys argued VanOsdol was too busy to give a deposition and that the plaintiffs had other ways to get information they needed rather than deposing the former CEO.

Fallgatter said when it comes to getting testimony from top executives, the courts must balance protecting leaders with the importance of their testimony.

“He has unique knowledge because he is the CEO. The knowledge of the CEO is incredibly important. He’s the only one with that knowledge,” Fallgatter said. “So in my opinion, his appeal was doomed because of his unique position.”

Court records show a deposition for VanOsdol has not yet been scheduled.

An attorney for Ascension St. Vincent’s declined to comment.

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I-TEAM and general assignment reporter