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Trial judge’s ruling revived in stent dispute

The state’s highest court on Friday reinstated a trial judge’s decision to split the claims of medical malpractice from fraud and conspiracy counts in two lawsuits over stent surgeries performed by former cardiologist Mark Midei at St. Joseph Medical Center.

St. Joseph Medical Center (File photo)

The Court of Appeals acted quickly to undo a contrary ruling by Baltimore County Circuit Administrative Judge John G. Turnbull II.

Viewing it as a matter of court administration, Turnbull had not only countermanded the ruling by which Judge Nancy M. Purpura split, or bifurcated, the malpractice and fraud counts in the two cases before her; he also reassigned those cases away from Purpura and ordered that he alone would decide any future motions to bifurcate the issues in the hundreds of stent cases pending in the county.

In an order issued a week after arguments were heard, the Court of Appeals vacated Turnbull’s orders on all three points.

The main issue in the case, which was argued before the state’s top court March 8, hinged on the range of an administrative judge’s power.

Attorneys for St. Joseph and Midei argued that only the trial judge had the power to decide a civil trial’s path.

St. Joseph’s attorney, Andrew D. Levy of Brown Goldstein Levy LLP in Baltimore, argued that Turnbull’s order was a “usurpation of judicial power.” Levy declined to comment on the decision Friday.

Turnbull’s attorney, Deputy Maryland Solicitor General William F. Brockman, argued that an administrative judge has the power to separate trials because he or she can better assess courthouse resources for complex litigation.

Attorneys for the patients, William H. “Billy” Murphy Jr. of Murphy, Falcon & Murphy in Baltimore, and Howard A. Janet of Janet, Jenner & Suggs LLC in Pikesville, called Turnbull’s decision “routine” for an administrative judge, during arguments before the Court of Appeals.

Murphy and Janet did not return calls for comment Friday; nor did J. Michael Sloneker of Anderson, Coe & King LLP in Baltimore, an attorney for Midei.

The hospital suspended the cardiologist in 2009 and informed almost 600 patients that Midei may have implanted unnecessary stents. The flood of litigation soon followed.

Two of those cases, brought by patients Glenn L. Weinberg and Carl W. Sullivan, went before Purpura in September. Both cases included counts for medical malpractice as well as fraud and conspiracy.

Purpura granted a defense motion to bifurcate the trials, so that the medical malpractice counts would be tried separately from the conspiracy and fraud claims.

Purpura ruled that the division would save the court time and would prevent the doctor and hospital from being unfairly prejudiced.

Friday’s order, signed by Chief Judge Robert M. Bell, allows the bifurcated trials to proceed in Baltimore County Circuit Court.

The stent debacle contributed to the financial drain on St. Joseph, leading to the hospital’s sale earlier this year.

The Maryland Board of Physicians revoked Midei’s medical license in July 2011, saying the doctor had installed unnecessary stents in at least four out of five patients and had then lied about the extent of blockage in their coronary arteries. Baltimore County Circuit Judge Susan Souder rejected Midei’s appeal of the board’s decision in May.

In February, Colorado-based Catholic Health Initiatives agreed to pay $4.9 million in a settlement with the U.S. Justice Department over admitting patients unnecessarily for short stays in order to collect unwarranted reimbursements from Medicare, Medicaid and other federal healthcare programs.

This was preceded by another $22 million settlement with the Justice Department in November 2010 over allegations it had paid illegal kickbacks to MidAtlantic Cardiovascular Associates and billed federal benefit programs for the unnecessary stents.

Since 2009, the hospital suffered a drastic drop in patients and lost $3 million a month in revenue.

Catholic Health sold the hospital to the University of Maryland Medical System in November. The 145-year-old former Catholic community hospital is now called University of Maryland St. Joseph Medical Center.

As part of the purchase agreement, University of Maryland assumes no liability in pending legal actions against St. Joseph Medical Center.

WHAT THE COURT HELD

Case:

St. Joseph Medical Center, Mark G. Midei, M.D., and MidAtlantic Cardiovascular Associates, P.A. v. The Honorable John Grason Turnbull, II, Misc. No. 21, September Term 2012, Argued March 8, 2013. Decided March 15, 2013.

Issue:

Once a trial judge bifurcated medical malpractice issues from fraud and conspiracy counts, did the administrative judge act within his powers by countermanding that ruling, reassigning the cases to another judge and ordering that any further motions to bifurcate must be decided by the administrative judge?

Holding:

For reasons to be explained later, the Court of Appeals vacated the administrative judge’s orders on all points.

Counsel:

Andrew D. Levy of Brown Goldstein Levy LLP in Baltimore for St. Joseph Medical Center and Michael Sloneker of Anderson, Coe & King LLP in Baltimore, for appellant; Deputy Maryland Solicitor General William F. Brockman, Office of the Attorney General, for appellee.