Del. SC finds no fault in suspending 'disruptive' doctor

Jessica M. Karmasek Mar. 23, 2011, 5:29am

Justice Carolyn Berger wrote that the doctor "yelled at staff members and other doctors, demeaned patients, kicked doors, threw charts, and generally overreacted to problems that arise in any hospital..."

DOVER, Del. (Legal Newsline) - The Delaware Supreme Court last week upheld a lower court's ruling in favor of a hospital that suspended one of its doctors for his "demeaning comments," "loud and antagonistic manner" and frequent "outbursts." The doctor, Richard J. Sternberg, was an orthopedic surgeon on staff at Nanticoke Memorial Hospital from December 1999 through February 2008. According to Court documents, he was known as being critical of hospital practices and frequently spoke out about quality-of-care issues. Nurses, patients and other doctors often filed complaints about his behavior. On one occassion, he was allegedly in the operating room about to perform a procedure when he learned that the necessary instruments were not there. According to Court documents, "He became very angry and waved the drill he was holding in the air." Allegedly, another doctor was called to the operating room to calm Sternberg down and, eventually, the proper instruments were brought in and he finished the surgery. Hospital officials advised Sternberg to work on his communication skills and warned him numerous times to curb his outbursts or he would face further action, the opinion says, but his conduct did not improve and staff members continued to file complaints against Sternberg. The final straw was when the doctor, who was running for political office, invited a local reporter to observe him in surgery, the opinion says. Sternberg, however, did not tell the hospital staff of the visitor's true identity. Instead, Sternberg said her purpose was "educational." Upon finding out that the visitor was a reporter, she was escorted out of the hospital. And before the day was over, Sternberger was put on precautionary suspension. Hospital President and CEO Daniel J. Werner, in a letter to Sternberg, said by bringing a reporter into the operating room under false pretenses he "disrupted the ability of the operating room staff to provide appropriate patient care and subjected the patient to risk." Dr. Thomas Benz, Chief of Surgery, testified that Sternberg was simply "breaking the rules again." About four months later, in December 2006, the hospital board voted to reappoint Sternberg, subject to his successful completion of a three-day program for physicians who engage in disruptive behavior. Sternberg complied and returned to work. He remained at Nanticoke until he resigned in January 2008. It was until shortly before resigning that Sternberg filed a lawsuit against the hospital, alleging, among other things, "tortious interference with existing and prospective business relationships," defamation and breach of the medical staff bylaws. The hospital filed a counterclaim seeking attorneys' fees. Sternberg then filed a motion for summary judgment on the counterclaim, and the hospital filed a motion for summary judgment based on statutory immunity. The Sussex County Superior Court denied Sternberg's motion, granted the hospital's motion and awarded it about $285,000 in attorneys' fees and costs. The Supreme Court appeal followed. The Court, in its opinion filed March 15, agreed with the superior court on the case's merits but reversed the award of attorneys' fees. Justice Carolyn Berger, who authored the Court's 18-page opinion, said the problem with Sternberg's argument is that it doesn't take into account his long history of disruptive behavior and the circumstances leading up to his suspension. "Sternberg has not presented evidence to rebut the written statements and consistent deposition testimony recounting his unprofessional behavior -- he yelled at staff members and other doctors, demeaned patients, kicked doors, threw charts, and generally overreacted to problems that arise in any hospital, such as scheduling conflicts and mistakes in providing operating room supplies," she wrote for the Court. "By the time he brought the reporter in to observe, Sternberg knew that the (Medical Executive Committee) was recommending that his staff appointment and hospital privileges be revoked. "Werner could not have been clearer in warning Sternberg that any additional incidents of disruptive behavior would result in immediate suspension." The Court said it was "reasonable" to believe that the doctor was uncontrollable and therefore presented a threat of harm to patients or staff. The case was remanded to the superior court for further action. From Legal Newsline: Reach Jessica Karmasek by e-mail at

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