Court Blocks Defamation Suit Brought Against Doctor for Writing to Review Board

On Thursday, in the Western District of Washington, Judge James L. Robart ruled that the federal Health Care Quality Improvement Act (HCQIA) prevented a doctor from being sued for defamation when presenting to the professional review board of the hospital allegations of professional misconduct by other medical professionals in that same institution. 

The underlying litigation involved the plaintiff, head of Neurosurgery at the Swedish Medical Center in Seattle, WA, filing suit against two defendants, Dr. Cobb and The Seattle Times, for the alleged publication of false accusations against the plaintiff. The plaintiff asserted that the defendants publicly defamed the plaintiff by proffering that the plaintiff intimidated and harassed patients, interfered with the quality of the subordinate physicians’ training, advocated for the hiding of medical errors affecting patients, and blocked patient referrals that failed to serve his own department’s financial success. 

Dr. Cobb sought to dismiss the allegations via a motion for summary judgment, arguing that the HCQIA provided him with immunity to such suits. The defendant argued that the immunity was absolute, given that he did not provide The Seattle Times with the information directly, but rather simply sent letters to the Board of Directors of the Swedish Medical Center, which were then leaked to the Times.

The court disagreed with Cobb in part. The opinion explained that immunity under the HCQIA was not absolute, as it provided an immunity exception for statements presented to the professional review body of a hospital that were intentionally presented to the review body while the presenting physician had knowledge of the falsity of said statements. 

Judge Robart concluded by granting Cobb’s motion for summary judgment on grounds of immunity under HCQIA in part. The court determined that Cobb had immunity for all non-false statements presented to just the Board of Directors, however, Cobb could still be sued for defamation generally by the plaintiff as there remained unanswered questions about whether just the Board of Directors had received the statements and whether all statements received were indeed truthful. 

The plaintiff is represented by Harrigan Leyh Farmer & Thomsen. Cobbs is represented by McNaul Ebel Nawrot & Helgren