An exclusive investigation uncovered an unsettling fact – Florida physicians paid out more than $460 million for malpractice claims involving nearly 1,400 patient deaths over the past decade. Yet, many are still practicing and, thus, putting patients at risk.
Records indicated a “Lake Wales internal medicine doctor was still practicing after two malpractice death claims; A Fort Myers cardiologist, who has settled three claims – including two patient deaths – for a combined $1.4 million; A Palm Beach Gardens back surgeon who paid out a total of $1.6 million in seven malpractice suits, including two patient deaths,” according to the investigative report.
A constitutional amendment referred to as the “three strikes rule” was passed by Florida’s voters in 2004 and was supposed to prevent this from happening. Yet, in many cases, savvy attorneys have been able to boycott these standards so their clients can keep their licenses.
Take Dr. Ernest Rehnke of St. Petersburg for instance. The investigative team discovered Dr. Rehnke has paid out a total of sixteen malpractice claims since 2000, including six cases that involved patient fatalities. His malpractice insurance paid out a total of $2.6 million.
In January of 2014, Rehnke performed gastric bypass surgery on Pamela Jane Quiles, a 39-year-old medical assistant and mother of three, who died six month later. Quiles’ family filed a lawsuit contending she was “a high-risk patient, as her previous surgeries — which include gallbladder and appendix removals, hernia repairs, abdominal surgery, and a hysterectomy — had left Quiles’ surrounding tissue and vascularity compromised, rendering the gastric stapling contraindicated, or unwarranted,” according to records. Yet, Rehnke went ahead with the surgery anyway.
The family of 48-year-old Nisrin Tawil said Dr. Rehnke performed a routine weight loss surgery on her just days before she died in March of this year. She was also a mother of three.
“She’s the most amazing person I ever met, my wife,” said her husband Bassem Girgis. “Now my family’s missing its most important person.”
Girgis admits that while his wife had prepared extensively for the procedure, she failed to look into Dr. Rehnke’s sorted history. During the surgery, the physician accidentally hit an artery causing extensive bleeding.
“We never did research,” said Girgis. “He’s a doctor and I don’t think any doctor can be hurting people.”
The investigative team uncovered Dr. Rehnke has only been disciplined once by the Florida Board of Medicine – in 2006 for providing substandard treatment.
“The three-strikes-and-you’re-out law basically says it takes three verdicts in court against doctors to take their licenses away,” said Clearwater medical malpractice attorney Dennis Rogers. In other words, settling a case before a verdict is reached ensures that the doctor does not use one of the strikes and maintains an active medical license.
In total, there have been at least 120 Florida doctors with three or more malpractice claims over the past ten years, but only two doctors have had their licenses revoked under the state’s three strikes rule.
And, now, Florida law requires “a pre-filing investigation, including sworn affidavits from specialists in the same medical fields asserting their review of all medical records determined a breach in the standard of care by the doctor was a major cause of a patient’s injury or death,” according to the team. This means it is more difficult than ever to file a malpractice lawsuit to begin with.
“The concerns that the public has are perhaps more related to the policing of medicine and that is not the Board of Medicine’s responsibility,” said Dr. Stephen Rosenberg, chairman of the Florida Board of Medicine, which licenses and disciplines all medical doctors in the state.
Then, who is responsible for protecting patients from harm? This is what the public really wants to know.