Doctor won't receive new trial after damages award reduced by $52K

By Shanice Harris | Mar 27, 2017

HARRISBURG — A doctor has lost his appeal seeking a new trial on damages after a Lehigh County court reduced a jury verdict in his favor by more than $50,000.

The Superior Court on March 2 affirmed the decision in McGee's breach of contract lawsuit against St. Luke's Health Network Hospital and Dr. John Bruno. The court found no evidence that the jury's verdict was compromised.

McGee, who was awarded $104,000 in damages for the alleged contract breaches before a judge reduced it by half, had been seeking further damages for a letter the hospital sent to the Arizona Medical Board and other organizations that he said damaged his reputation.

McGee claimed that the jury’s verdict in the initial trial for his breach of contract claims had no relation to the evidence that was presented during the trial. Because of this, he felt he was entitled to a new trial on damages and argued that the court committed an error.

McGee was a physician at the hospital until he was suspended in September 2005. St. Luke’s claimed that it suspended him during an investigation into allegations of McGee violating his employee agreement.

Soon after his suspension, McGee asked Bruno, the hospital's vice president for medical affairs, for a reference letter, as he was seeking employment at another hospital. In the letter, Bruno referenced the investigation allegations, which included:

-McGee’s failure to provide a screening exam to an emergency room patient;

-McGee's dating relationship with a patient; and

-McGee's alleged transgression in writing himself a prescription he claimed was for a patient.

Bruno said the hospital did a full investigation and fired McGee as a result.

Three years later, McGee filed a lawsuit against St. Luke’s and Bruno. He alleged that the defendants defamed him and hindered his current and future business relations. In 2009, both parties presented the terms of a settlement agreement, which the trial court approved and adopted as an order of court.

In the court order was a form letter that the hospital was told to use in all future dealing regarding McGee’s employment with St. Luke’s. The letter does not reference any allegations that McGee had relations with a patient.

Over the next four years, both parties utilized the letter to provide a reference for McGee. But in 2011, the defendants sent an alternative letter that contained an allegation that St. Luke’s had terminated McGee “for what [it] considered the exercise of poor judgment in the handling and treatment of patients and medications,” according to court documents.

The alternative letter also contained the dating allegations that McGee “dated a woman who had previously been admitted and discharged as his patient.”

This letter was sent to several medical organizations by St. Luke’s, including the Arizona Medical Board and Carlisle Regional Medical Center. McGee was in talks with each for employment opportunities.

McGee got wind of the alternative letter and filed a lawsuit stating that the hospital and Bruno had defamed his character, interfered with his well-being and breached the settlement agreement.

During the trial, the defendants focused on the idea that the letters did not cause damage to McGee’s reputation, but that his own actions caused his misfortune. The jury found in favor of McGee on his breach-of-contract claims.

The total award to McGee was $104,000, but the trial court found there wasn't evidence to support two of the $26,000 awards, reducing each to $1 and reducing the total verdict by half. McGee then filed a post-trial motion, arguing the damage to his reputation was obvious. The trial court denied McGee’s motion.

The final statement in the court's decision reads: “We again refuse to speculate on the nature of the verdict reached by the jury. The verdicts based upon the erroneous letter sent to CRMC are supported by sufficient evidence, and therefore we have no reason to categorize those verdicts as compromise verdicts.

"We thus have no reason to assume that the Arizona Medical Board breach verdicts were part of a jury compromise. The trial court appropriately molded the verdict to reflect what all parties agree the record reflected. Dr. McGee’s second and final issue merits no relief.”

McGee's expert Andrew Verzilli had testified that Dr. McGee suffered between $288,638 and $513,222 of lost and future earnings due to his failure to be credentialed at CRMC.

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