HOUSTON – On Aug. 15, the Court of Appeals for the First District of Texas affirmed a $6 million award for a physician who sued his former employer health system for allegedly defaming him.
Cardiologist Miguel A. Gomez III, M.D. and Miguel A. Gomez, M.D., P.A. (collectively Gomez) sued his former employer, Memorial Hermann Health System, over allegations of business disparagement, defamation, restraint of trade, tortious interference with prospective business relations.
Gomez alleged the misconduct occurred when MHHS allegedly “used misleading data and a ‘whisper campaign’ to eliminate competition by defaming Gomez and disparaging Gomez P.A.,” according to the ruling. A jury in the 333rd District Court in Harris County found in favor of Gomez and awarded more $6 million in compensatory and exemplary damages.
MHHS appealed on the allegations that the alleged defamation was not published to a third party, there was no evidence of causation, legally insufficient evidence of lost profits and other issues. Gomez also filed a cross-appeal and said the lower court erred concerning its filing of their tortious interference and prospective business relations claim to the jury.
Justices Evelyn V. Keyes and Russell Lloyd concurred and affirmed the lower court’s ruling.
In its first issue, MHHS said data concerning alleged high mortality rates was not published to a third party and therefore wasn’t defamation. But Keyes pointed out the data was still used in presentations and conversations, despite the Surgical Peer Review Committee advising against it. Considering this, Keyes dismissed MHHS’ first issue.
MHHS also said Gomez didn’t show causation between defamation and business disparagement from an MHHS worker allegedly telling one of Gomez’s potential employers that she heard about Gomez’s alleged high mortality rates. MHHS alleged that there’s no evidence of causation between the alleged defamation and the loss of referrals for Gomez.
Keyes pointed out that testimony showed Gomez lost $5.6 million in profits. The testimony was backed with data, including Gomez’s referrals and surgeries he performed before and after the alleged defamation.
As for the causation for the business disparagement claims, Keyes said that there was testimony backing the notion that Gomez lost business because of the statements and the narrative that he was not a good surgeon due to the mortality rate rumor about him. It determined there was enough testimony and evidence to show that Gomez suffered mental anguish as a result of the alleged defamation.
Keyes also addressed MHHS’ challenges that the statements were covered under qualified privilege. To show this, MHHS had to prove the statements were made in good faith. Keyes said the statement an MHHS worker allegedly made about Gomez’s mortality rate to a potential employer was within the scope of their personal relationship, so it was nothing more than gossip, and not a part of her actual job responsibilities.
As for the data collected, Keyes added that some of it was unreliable.
MHHS appealed that there wasn’t enough evidence to prove damages and that there’s double recovery since damages were awarded to Gomez and Gomez P.A.
Keyes determined that loss of profits and other factors were enough to justify the awarded amount. She also disagreed that there was a double recovery at hand.