Appeal court overturns ex-AdventHealth surgeon’s $2.85 million whistleblower lawsuit

Naseem S. Miller, Orlando Sentinel

More than two years after an Orlando jury awarded former AdventHealth surgeon Dr. Ahmad Chaudhry $2.85 million in a whistleblower lawsuit, a state appeals court has overturned the ruling because of instructions given to the jury.

According to the 5th District Court of Appeal, the jury should have made its decision using a “but for” standard, meaning they needed to find that Chaudhry wouldn’t have been fired if he hadn’t complained about the then-director of the heart-lung transplant institute. Instead, the jury used a “motivating factor” standard, which means they found Chaudhry’s complaints about the director was a motivating factor in his termination, even if it wasn’t the only reason.

In his original lawsuit, Chaudhry alleged that he was wrongfully fired in violation of Florida’s Private Whistle Blower’s Act, because he had raised concerns about unsafe practices of then-director of heart and lung transplant institute, Dr. Hartmuth Bittner.

AdventHealth denied the allegations, saying that Chaudhry wasn’t working out as a member of the transplant team and that “his continued employment would be disruptive and harmful to the program,” and he had failed his board certification exam for the third time, according to the court opinion document. The health system also argued that Chaudhry’s termination without cause was permitted by his employment agreement.

The case is now set for a new trial.

“[Chaudhry] is relentlessly committed to patient safety and pursuing this case, as an indication for patient safety, not just in Orlando, but all across the country,” said his attorney, Stuart Ratzan.

An AdventHealth spokesman said the health system did not comment on pending litigation.

The “but for” test, which is more stringent than the “motivating factor,” has been applied in federal courts in Florida, but this is the first time it’s been used by a state appeals court.

Whether the court’s opinion will affect future whistleblower lawsuits in the state “is more of an open question,” said Stephanie Bornstein, professor of law at University of Florida Levin College of Law.

In brief...

Orlando Health has acquired 80 acres of land on the south side of Lakeland. The health system said the city’s code allows for construction of a hospital with up to 360 beds, an ambulatory surgical center, medical office space, a small hotel and limited supporting retail. Timing of the project will be based on the needs of the community.

Orlando Health recently completed a medical office building on its downtown campus, which will serve as the new headquarters for Orlando Health corporate quality and nursing, customer experience and medical staff services.

Orlando Health has launched a new education program to pay for tuition and books of employees who want to pursue a degree or certificate at Valencia College. The program is administered by Bright Horizons EdAssist Solutions.

Orlando Health is now the official medical provider for UCF Athletics. Physicians at Orlando Health Jewett Orthopedic Institute will coordinate the care of 500 UCF student-athletes in 16 sports through the Orlando Health network.

Daryl Tol, president and CEO of AdventHealth Central Florida division was elected as chair-elect and vice chair of Florida Hospital Association. Steven P. Johnson, president and CEO of Health First, in which AdventHealth has a non-controlling interest, was elected board chair. Mary Mayhew, President and CEO, Florida Hospital Association is the secretary. David Strong, President and CEO of Orlando Health is among the trustees.

Rothman Orthopaedic Institute, which is establishing practices in Central Florida in partnership with AdventHealth, has hired Dr. Alfredo Arrojas, a total joint reconstruction surgeon and previously part of Orthopaedics Associates of Osceola.

nmiller@orlandosentinel.com.

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