Health & Medicine

Fresno cardiologist settles five negligence suits. Is the hospital where he practiced next?

Dr. Pevaiz Chaudhry, shown leaving Fresno County Superior Court earlier this year.
Dr. Pevaiz Chaudhry, shown leaving Fresno County Superior Court earlier this year. Fresno Bee file

A Fresno surgeon who was hit with a $68 million jury verdict in March for abandoning his patient during open-heart surgery has reached a confidential settlement in that case.

Now, the lawyers who won the Fresno County Superior Court judgment against Dr. Pervaiz Chaudhry say they want to hold Fresno’s Community Medical Centers liable for Chaudhry’s conduct in the operating room in another surgery.

In a civil lawsuit, attorneys Jeff Mitchell, Ricardo Echeverria and Steven Heimberg have charged Community Medical Centers (CMC) with corporate negligence, concealment and fraud, alleging that hospital administrators, for years, put financial gain over patient care by ignoring or covering up Chaudhry’s conduct in the operating room.

The lawsuit was filed on behalf of the family of Gregory Riddle, 57, of Visalia who died in August 2011 after undergoing open-heart surgery at Community Regional Medical Center in downtown Fresno.

The lawsuit accuses Chaudhry of being drunk during Riddle’s surgery. .Hospital officials are accused of concealing vital information about Riddle’s surgery and failing to perform a proper investigation.

According to the lawsuit, hospital officials, for years, have been aware of Chaudhry’s alleged substance abuse problems and penchant to” cut corners” during surgeries but have done nothing about it. Hospital officials haven’t reprimanded Chaudhry, the lawsuit says, because his renowned skills have brought hundreds of lucrative open-heart surgeries to CRMC.

Community Medical Centers operates CRMC, Clovis Community Medical Center, Fresno Heart & Surgery Hospital and Community Behavioral Health Center in Fresno.

Community’s lawyers say in court documents the Riddle lawsuit should be dismissed because the allegations are “improper, irrelevant and false” and do not conform to state law: “However, try as they might, plaintiffs fail in their effort to transform this case into something it is not.”

On Aug. 22, Judge Jeffrey Hamilton is scheduled to rule on CMC’s motion that challenges the validity of Riddle’s lawsuit.

Supporter say Chaudhry, 57, is a brilliant, hard-working surgeon who did high-risk surgeries to save lives. He could not be reached for comment and no longer has privileges at CRMC.

According to the Medical Board of California website, Chaudhry’s license is in good standing. He has no administrative disciplinary actions, no criminal convictions and no public letters of reprimand.

In Chaudhry’s trial that ended in March, Mitchell, Echeverria and Heimberg represented the family of Silvino Perez, whose botched surgery in April 2012 left him in a coma.

In reaching the $68 million verdict, the jury determined Chaudhry was negligent for leaving the operating room at CRMC and ordering his physician assistant – who happened to be his girlfriend at the time – to close the chest of Perez, then 70 years old and a retired packinghouse worker from Sanger.

While Perez was still in surgery, Chaudhry headed to a business luncheon in northeast Fresno. The jury learned that Perez lost so much blood that his brain was starved of oxygen, causing him to go into a coma, a condition that exists today.

Chaudhry was not in court when the verdict was announced. Lawyers said he had returned to Pakistan, where he has a family. But after the verdict, Chaudhry and his lawyers reached a confidential settlement with Perez’s family and settled four other lawsuits, including with Riddle’s family, court records say.

Community Medical Centers settled with Perez’s family for an undisclosed sum before Chaudhry’s trial. But CMC has declined to reach a settlement with Riddle’s family and the families in the three other lawsuits in which Chaudhry has reached confidential settlements, Mitchell said.

The Riddle lawsuit only gives his lawyers’ account of what happened. Mitchell, however, said the lawsuit, which was amended in August last year, is supported by deposition testimony from medical staff who were with Chaudhry when he operated on Riddle.

The lawsuit says:

On Aug. 7, 2011, Riddle had chest pains and was taken to Kaweah Delta Medical Center in Visalia, where it was determined that he was suffering from an aortic dissection, a tear in the inner layer of the aorta. Soon after, he was taken to CRMC and admitted into the intensive care unit.

Chaudhry was the on-call cardiac surgeon at CRMC that evening. Assisting him was heart surgeon Dr. Larry Cohler. After Riddle was taken to the operating room for a 6:20 p.m. surgery, anesthesia was started on him. But Chaudhry could not be found.

“The nurses in the OR called Dr. Chaudhry multiple times, but Dr. Chaudhry was not answering his phone,” the lawsuit says.

Chaudhry showed up to the operating room about three hours later. During the surgery, he nicked the pulmonary artery “but did not disclose this in Mr. Riddle’s medical records,” the lawsuit says.

But in his operative report, according to the lawsuit, Chaudhry said: “There were no complications from the surgery.”

Between 11:40 p.m. Aug. 7, 2011, to 1:45 a..m. the next day, Riddle was placed on a heart-lung machine and taken off of it several times. Chaudhry ordered protamine to counter the effects of the blood thinner heparin.

The operator of the heart-lung machine expressed concern about giving Riddle protamine because it could cause blood clotting, which could lead to a stroke. The operator warned Chaudhry about “the danger of clotting,” but Chaudhry ignored the operator, the lawsuit says.

In his report, Chaudhry said Riddle was separated from the heart-lung machine without any difficulty and satisfactorily reached hemotasis, the stopping of blood flow, toward the end of surgery. Chaudhry also reported that Riddle was in stable condition when he left the operating room shortly before 1:50 a.m. Aug. 8, 2011.

But later that day, “Riddle was taken back for another surgery by Chaudhry that was described as an emergency re-exploration for bleeding,” the lawsuit says. “A few days later, on August 13, 2011, Mr. Riddle coded and died at CRMC.”

Lawyers for Riddle’s family contend they did not learn of the nicked artery until November 2016, when hospital officials turned over a medical staffer’s notes in response to the lawsuit.

The lawyers said they also learned years after the surgery that Chaudhry “was under the influence of alcohol sufficient to impair his surgery competence and acumen” when he performed Riddle’s surgery, the lawsuit says.

After Riddle’s surgery, the lawsuit says, several operating room staffers reported to their supervisor that they believed Chaudhry was impaired by alcohol. The supervisor reported the information to the director of surgery, Diane Carlson, who informed her bosses, including Jack Chubb, CMC’s chief executive officer; Berj Apkarian,vice president of medical affairs; Tom Utecht, chief quality officer, and Laura McComb, associate administrator of risk management, patient safety and regulatory.

“Instead of properly investigating the numerous allegations received about Dr. Chaudhry’s intoxication, Jack Chubb, the CEO of CRMC, assured Dr. Chaudhry that the hospital would take care of it and that this was procedural,” the lawsuit says.

According to the hospital staffer’s notes that Riddle’s lawyers received in November 2016, none of the operating room employees “were willing to go on the record about their concerns that Dr. Chaudhry appeared drunk during surgery.”

Lawyers for Riddle’s family contend that’s because the operating room staffers feared they would be fired if they accused Chaudhry of being drunk. Chaudhry wielded enormous power and influence at CMC, the lawsuit says.

At the time of Riddle’s surgery, Chaudhry and his colleagues in Valley Cardiac Surgery Medical Group held directorships at CRMC. His medical group also had an exclusive on-call coverage contract.

Chaudhry and his medical group performed hundreds of surgeries a year for CMC, resulting in an increase of revenue and profits, the lawsuit says. Profits were a priority, the lawsuit says, because hospital officials “were aware that Dr. Chaudhry was engaging in conduct that jeopardized the health and welfare of patients.”

Pablo Lopez: 559-441-6434, @beecourts

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