The Dalles Mid-Columbia Medical Center contends that administrators knew of only two out of 12 sexual abuse complaints against Dr. Frederick Field when a police investigation began in 2011.
“Thus, only two plaintiffs even gave the hospital an opportunity to respond to Dr. Field’s alleged misconduct,” wrote Portland attorney Robert Keating in a legal brief for a July 5 pre-trial hearing.
His statements to defend MCMC were made in a Hood River hearing involving a civil suit filed on behalf of seven women (one employee and six patients) by the Portland firm of Kafoury and McDougal.
Attorney Greg Kafoury contends the hospital engaged in a pattern of “concealment and deceit” that harmed these women and it should pay more than $27 million in compensatory and punitive damages.
“That whole place is ‘hear no evil, see no evil and speak no evil.’ Nobody wanted to know,” he said.
Keating argues in the suit brought by Kafoury and his partner, Mark McDougal, that administrators had a patient complaint of molestation in 2008. However, he said they were unable to act because phone messages to the home of the victim for more information went unanswered. And there was no response to inquiries via mail about the incident.
The attorney further contends the complaint of molestation made by a patient in early 2011 was later recanted. The woman told her surgeon that she believed her memory was a hallucination brought on by the sedating drugs administered by Field, an anesthesiologist.
Sexual abuse claims reported by women involving incidents in 2007, 2010, and 2011 were not made known to hospital officials until after a police investigation into Field’s behavior began in the spring of 2011, according to Keating.
He said hospital officials could not take immediate action to address the situation involving Field because of that investigation. Administrators were asked by detectives to not tip the doctor off about abuse reports because a recorded phone conversation was being set up between him and a 2007 victim in hopes of gaining a confession.
That phone call recorded Field’s acknowledgement of sexually inappropriate behavior and he was arrested July 28, 2011. Other evidence included recovery of Field’s semen stains from the cushion of a hospital-owned couch where an employee reported being raped after he gave her medicine for a headache that rendered her helpless.
Field pleaded guilty to 11 counts of first-degree sex abuse and one count of first-degree rape and was sentenced last September to 23 years in prison. Three of the 12 women named as victims and not working with Kafoury have engaged other attorneys for similar court actions.
“During the period between when the police investigation into Dr. Field began and when he was arrested, the hospital had to walk the difficult balance of closely monitoring Dr. Field without alerting him to the fact he was being investigated,” wrote Keating in his brief.
“The Surgery Department Director, Dixon Ohnemus, was informed of the need to keep Dr. Field under close supervision. Mr. Ohnemus undertook repeatedly walking through any surgery in which Dr. Field was providing anesthesia, varying when he walked within the operation rooms, and what doorways he used to enter and exit the operating rooms.”
Kafoury refutes Keating’s claim that MCMC officials did everything they could to address the situation with Field once they learned of the sex abuse complaints. He said files were “conveniently misplaced” and The Dalles Police Detective Sgt. Dan Nelson expressed “frustration” in a deposition — oral testimony that will be used in court proceedings — about not receiving information in a timely manner.
For example, Nelson said he learned that nurses had filed complaints about Field’s sexual aggressiveness not from administrators but media reports.
“It’s not just us — the lawyers and the women — making the accusation that the hospital concealed evidence, it’s also the police,” Kafoury said.
In his deposition, Nelson is asked by Kafoury, “At some point, did you say to yourself, you know, this hospital has not been straight with me?”
Nelson replied, “Yes, sir” and Kafoury then asked, “At some point, did you say to yourself, if they had been straight with me from the get-go, this investigation would have been over a lot sooner?”
“Yes,” said the detective.
Kafoury has named Duane Francis, chief executive officer, and Diane Storby, the vice-president of operations, who deals with risk management and patient advocacy, as defendants in the civil suit.
The two administrators are accused of not responding more aggressively to reports of Field’s misconduct and, thereby, allowing his abuse to continue.
Francis and Storby are being sued personally for anywhere from $750,000 to $2 million in each of seven victims’ claims.
Jim Habberstad, general counsel for the medical center, said it is not unusual for plaintiffs to name administrators as defendants in cases involving allegations of wrongdoing by an institution. However, he said Francis and Storby will not end up personally paying any judgment, if one is rendered.
“They are agents of the hospital and it is the responsibility of the hospital to make sure staff follows the guidelines,” he said.
Kafoury and his partner, Mark McDougal, were granted the right by Judge Paul Crowley at the July 5 hearing to seek $1 million in punitive damages from the hospital on behalf of each client. The hearing took place in Hood River and not The Dalles to accommodate the schedule of Crowley, the presiding judge for the Seventh Judicial District.
Punitive damages is an award that is intended to set an example that will keep other institutions from engaging in the same conduct that formed the basis for the lawsuit
Habberstad said it is extremely rare for a judge not to allow punitive damage claims to be filed in these types of cases. However, he said it is the burden of the plaintiffs to show that wrongdoing has taken place to justify the payment of compensation.
“I don’t know of any cases where a judge hasn’t allowed punitive damages to be included — but they still have to prove their point,” he said.
Crowley granted Kafoury’s request to consolidate the cases of the four victims that will first go to trial instead of having them heard separately, as MCMC lawyers wanted.
Keating had argued that each case involved a set of “unique circumstances” and medical center officials should be judged by their knowledge and handling of each respective incident.
He said Field was not an employee of the hospital but worked for five years under contract. For that reason, he said MCMC can’t be held liable for the conduct of a physician who only had “privileges to practice anesthesiology.” Field is reported to have sedated 133 patients during his time with the medical center.
Kafoury said hospital officials chose not to pay attention to signs of problems involving Field. He said after the woman in 2011 reported memories of being molested, administrators should have been suspicious that she later said the memories must be the result of hallucinations when they knew Field had visited her room.
In addition, he said Field told the surgeon who questioned him about potential inappropriate behavior in 2011 that he had been subjected to the same kind of complaint while in his residency. Storby said in court documents that she had not taken steps to check out that potential incident.
The first jury trial for four victims is set for Oct. 1.
Kafoury and McDougal will return for a second trial on behalf of their remaining three clients after cases handled by the two other lawyers are given time in court.
“It would be a very long trial if all of the women were together, so this just makes it a little easier on the court and jurors to divide things up,” said Kafoury.
Habberstad said the hospital is looking forward to revealing facts in the trial that will “set the record straight” on efforts made to protect patients and handle the situation involving Fields.