It’s not at all unusual for news organizations to be threatened with lawsuits, but fairly unusual for one to be filed. In Duluth today, however, a hospital has filed suit against the investigative reporting of the Duluth News Tribune.
St. Luke’s Hospital has filed suit against the paper for its report on neurosurgeon Stefan Konasiewicz, who worked at the hospital from 1997 to 2008.
In May, the paper ran a series of articles alleging the hospital was ignoring the number of malpractice suits filed against the doctor:
When he moved from Duluth about three years ago, Konasiewicz left behind two dead patients, one woman paralyzed from the neck down and six others who say his treatment caused them serious physical harm.
His former employer, St. Luke’s hospital, was aware of the harm Konasiewicz was alleged to have caused and yet continued to let him practice, according to records obtained and interviews conducted by the News Tribune.
In its lawsuit, the hospital says the paper knew that the hospital “had a rigorous Quality Assurance program, that all adverse outcomes were investigated, and that St. Luke’s has always engaged in an ongoing extensive peer review program,” and that state law and the rules for participating in Medicare required the hospital to have an accredited peer review program.
“To create this false news report, Defendants intentionally and deliberately mislead sources, quoted sources out of context, and purposefully avoided information that would contradict their preconceived story,” the lawsuit alleges.
In August, the paper followed up with two more stories about the efforts of colleagues to call attention to Konasiewicz, and seemed to imply that the administration looked the other way because he was making money for the hospital that was losing it before the doctor was hired:
Peter Goldschmidt, an orthopedic surgeon who shared patients with Konasiewicz as part of St. Luke’s trauma team, said he saw so many complications and adverse outcomes from his colleague that in the early 2000s he brought his concerns directly to St. Luke’s senior administration. People he addressed, he said, included CEO and President John Strange, Vice President of Clinics Sandra Barkley and Chief Nursing Officer JoAnn Hoag. He said he also spoke about Konasiewicz with the then-chair of St. Luke’s board, Wells McGiffert.
“I thought something had to be done because of the unacceptably high complication rate,” said Goldschmidt, who has worked in Duluth since 1994 with Orthopedic Associates, an independent practice that works with St. Luke’s. “Nothing seemed to change in (Konasiewicz’s practice). And I never received any follow-up.”
In an interview on Friday, Strange, who has been CEO of St. Luke’s since 1996, said the responsibility for taking any action against Konasiewicz lay with St. Luke’s doctors.
Strange said concerns that are brought to him or other administrators about any doctor are taken to the hospital’s medical executive committee, which is composed mostly of physicians and has the ability to discipline doctors or restrict their privileges. Strange said he is on the committee but does not have a vote.
“I’m not a physician,” Strange said. “Some of that stuff is so technical. I’m not in a position to make a judgment on whether or not something was good care.”
In its suit, the hospital said the critic of Konasiewicz quoted in the story, Peter Goldschmidt, worked for a company that was in “competition with St. Luke’s,” and that his statement was false. It also said had Goldschmidt raised his concerns with the hospital, it would have been required to investigate them.
The story that seems to be at the heart of the lawsuit was filed just as a negligence trial was starting in Stillwater, filed by a man who alleged a brain biopsy performed by Dr. Konasiewicz led to seizures, severe cerebral dysfunction and brain injuries. A week or so later, a jury cleared Konasiewicz.
This afternoon, the hospital issued this statement:
The false statements about St. Luke’s published by the Duluth News Tribune are unacceptable. This defamation lawsuit was brought because our patients, dedicated staff, and community deserve to know the truth and not be misled and misinformed by these false reports.
St. Luke’s is deeply disappointed in the Duluth News Tribune’s tactics to produce its false and defamatory reports. Patient safety and quality healthcare is our top priority at St. Luke’s. We are committed to making the truth known, to the extent allowed by law, particularly when it concerns the quality of care we provide our patients.
Notwithstanding the false and defamatory reports by the Duluth News Tribune, we are gratified by the numerous expressions of support that we receive everyday from our patients, staff and community.
In his statement, News Tribune Publisher Ken Browall said: “The stories portrayed what is unquestionably a matter of public safety and concern. We look forward to proceeding to court and the dismissal of this unwarranted complaint.”