The Supreme Court of California upheld a lower court ruling to reject efforts to toss out a lawsuit brought forth by an Orange County physician and whistleblower. This landmark decision signals a significant shift in how state law protects doctors from retaliation from hospitals and professional staff associations, both of which have been liable to hide behind peer-review confidentiality and privilege.
Greene Broillet & Wheeler, LLP Attorney Mark Quigley, who serves on the plaintiff’s team with fellow GBW Attorney Christian Nickerson, called this decision a victory for whistleblowers and patient safety.
“The hospital peer-review process benefits from enormous protections under federal and state law,” Attorney Quigley stated. “This blanket immunity and confidentiality also negatively impact the quality of health care.”
In the case, Bonni v. St. Joseph Health System (Case No. S244148), plaintiff Dr. Aram Bonni, a surgeon, alleged that defendants Mission Hospital Regional Medical Center and St. Joseph Hospital in Orange, retaliated against him after, in the interest of patient care, he complained about the robotic surgery program’s shortcomings. Dr. Bonnie alleged that his complaints resulted in the suspension of his hospital privileges and an unwarranted peer review. Thus, he sued based on California’s whistleblower statute, Health and Safety Code § 1278.5, which prohibits health facilities from retaliating against a medical staff member over a grievance, complaint, or report to the facility or its medical staff.
Dr. Bonni first complained in October 2009 to the vice president of medical affairs at Mission Hospital Regional Medical Center that its robotic surgery program was so understaffed that it directly and adversely affected patient care. He wrote in an email that he was unable to complete scheduled surgeries due to this issue. Just a few months later, he complained again to the same hospital officer. This time, he detailed a da Vinci robot malfunction he experienced when performing surgery December 22, 2009. He made further reports in 2010 about his concerns with the robotic program.
The hospitals responded to Dr. Bonni’s claim with an anti-Strategic Lawsuit Against Public Participation (anti-SLAPP), Code of Civil Procedure § 425.16, motion. They argued that all activities at issue in Dr. Bonni’s retaliation claim constituted protected peer-review activities and, further, the defendants’ actions “were motivated by concerns for patient safety because of plaintiff’s poor surgical technique.”
California’s anti-SLAPP statute allows defendants to seek early dismissal of harassing lawsuits concerning free speech. The trial court granted the anti-SLAPP motion brought forth by the hospitals. Dr. Bonni appealed, however—and won. This ruling is, no doubt, a significant victory for public health and safety.
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