Johnny Delashaw resigned from Swedish Health a year ago, less than three weeks after he was prominently featured in a Times investigation that exposed widespread concerns about his practices.
Johnny B. Delashaw Jr., former head of the Swedish Neuroscience Institute, filed a libel and defamation lawsuit Wednesday against The Seattle Times and a doctor at the institute, alleging Delashaw was the victim of false reporting about his practices in a series of articles and a conspiracy to undermine his reputation.
The suit, filed in U.S. District Court in Seattle, seeks unspecified monetary damages; an order enjoining The Times from publishing false statements about Delashaw and requiring the removal of false statements about Delashaw from its website; and a published retraction.
It also seeks an order enjoining the doctor named in the suit, Charles Cobbs, from making any false statements about Delashaw. The suit alleges Cobbs and another doctor engaged in a plot, rooted in false allegations, to undermine Delashaw because they resented loss of income and authority under Delashaw’s leadership.
The suit doesn’t specifically connect the alleged actions of the two doctors to the articles in The Times.
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“We are reviewing the complaint, but we stand by the accuracy of the ‘Quantity of Care’ series,” said Alan Fisco, Seattle Times president. “As this is a legal matter, we will have no further comment at this time.”
Delashaw resigned his Swedish post in March 2017, less than three weeks after a Seattle Times investigation exposed widespread concerns about his practices. The state suspended his license in May, a decision Delashaw is appealing.
The Medical Quality Assurance Commission wrote that the suspension of Delashaw’s license was warranted because “of an immediate threat to the public health and safety.”
In documents filed to support the suspension, commission officials said Delashaw had intimidated subordinates by yelling, swearing and making threatening movements toward staff members. That had a chilling effect on staff members, according to the commission, and some became afraid to ask Delashaw questions that were needed to properly care for patients.
“This reluctance of staff to engage (Delashaw) imparted an enormous amount of risk onto the patients,” wrote Melanie de Leon, executive director of the commission.
In a subsequent investigation, hospital regulators identified a wide range of troubles at Swedish Health’s Cherry Hill facility, including failures of oversight and “numerous” issues related to patient safety.
Cobbs’ attorney, Malaika M. Eaton, called the lawsuit an “act of desperation” by Delashaw as he seeks to get his license back.
“The lawsuit filed by Delashaw against Dr. Cobbs has no merit whatsoever,” Eaton said. “Dr. Cobbs will fight it.”
The lawsuit contends The Times stories falsely claimed Delashaw neglected patients by performing “concurrent surgeries,” overseeing more than one surgery simultaneously because he was allegedly paid by volume. However, the suit claims that, beginning in April 2015, Delashaw was on salary and “had no financial incentive to increase his surgical volume.”
The main story detailed rising surgeries in 2013, 2014 and 2015 and described how Swedish changed its contracts for surgeons in the neuroscience institute during that time so that compensation for surgeons was almost entirely based on volume. Delashaw said in the lawsuit he supported that move, saying that it ensured “that surgeons received pay for what they did without having it siphoned off by surgeons who were not performing the work.”
The lawsuit also said The Times used incomplete data and failed to include other data that showed excellent patient outcomes. In the main story The Times did include details from a Swedish official who said the hospital’s internal data showed outcomes as better than national expectations and posted a separate page online of Swedish’s complete comments on the issue, including its own charts.
Before filing the lawsuit, Delashaw had never requested a correction. Nor had Swedish.
Hospital leaders recruited Delashaw in 2013 from an institution in California, where he had been dealing with an internal investigation and allegations that he may have performed unnecessary surgeries and that his patients had high rates of medical complications.
After arriving at Swedish, Delashaw quickly emerged as the highest-volume brain or spine surgeon in the state, handling 661 inpatient cases totaling more than $86 million in billed charges for the hospital in his first 16 months. But in that time, he faced dozens of internal complaints from Swedish staffers, according to records.
Records showed that, among the issues, his colleagues had expressed concern that Delashaw had created a culture of retribution, making it difficult to question his decisions.
Many of the issues raised in Delashaw’s lawsuit also figure in the appeal of his suspension, in which he claims the two doctors conspired with each other and with The Times to oust him. However, the document Delashaw’s lawyers call “the smoking gun,” a purported email exchange between two doctors, was fabricated, according to the two doctors and a forensic analyst hired by one of them.
In December, a hearing officer granted Delashaw’s request to postpone the appeal hearing until April to allow attorneys to determine the authenticity of the documents and seek additional evidence, according to a Department of Health spokesman and pleadings in the case.
The lawsuit does not mention the document cited in Delashaw’s appeal.