Johnny Delashaw, a renowned neurosurgeon with deep and continuing ties to Longview, sued the Seattle Times for libel Wednesday, claiming the newspaper published false assertions and omitted essential facts in an award-winning series published last year.
The series — a possible contender for a Pulitzer Prize later this month — caused Delashaw to voluntarily resign as chairman of the Swedish Neuroscience Institute in March 2017. It also prompted the state medical commission to summarily suspend his license two months later.
But the Longview-bred neurosurgeon’s suit alleges the Times series hinged on a false premise: That Delashaw raced through simultaneous surgeries in pursuit of more dollars at the expense of quality patient care. Instead, Delashaw was on a fixed salary that rewarded quality for nearly two years before the Times published its explosive series in February 2017, the suit says.
In his complaint, Delashaw argues that the Times hewed to a controversial storyline to promote readership of the paper’s watchdog series while neglecting contradictory data and eyewitness accounts.
As part of his request for relief, Delashaw is asking for an order requiring the Times to remove alleged false and misleading statements from its website and to publish a retraction.
The suit also names Dr. Charles Cobbs as a defendant. Cobbs, Delashaw’s former colleague at Swedish, made defamatory statements to hospital administrators as part of a civil conspiracy with another doctor to oust Delashaw for monetary gain, the suit asserts. Cobbs’ statements were later leaked to the Times and featured prominently in its series.
Cobbs is also a third-party witness in Delashaw’s prolonged fight to get his medical license reinstated. That matter is headed for a hearing before the state Medical Quality Assurance Commission beginning April 23.
The Times and Cobbs could be liable for millions in damages if Delashaw can prove they knowingly disseminated false and misleading information. The civil suit was filed in U.S. District Court for Western Washington in Seattle because Delashaw and Cobbs are residents of different states. Delashaw currently lives in Sedona, Ariz. Cobbs lives on Mercer Island and is still employed as a neurosurgeon at Swedish.
Delashaw is represented by Arthur Harrigan, an experienced trial attorney whose past clients include Microsoft and King County.
“We are reviewing the complaint, but we stand by the accuracy of the Quantity of Care series,” said Alan Fisco, Seattle Times president. “As this is a legal matter, we will have no further comment at this time.”
Malaika Eaton, an attorney representing Cobbs, said the libel suit has no merit.
"It appears to be an act of desperation filed days before Delashaw’s license suspension hearing," she said in a statement to The Daily News.
The libel suit comes two months after Mike Baker and Justin Mayo, co-authors of the Times series, were awarded the 2018 Selden Ring Award for Reporting — a $50,000 prize that has a history of predicting Pulitzers for investigative journalism. Among other changes, the series prompted Swedish and other Seattle-area hospitals to start documenting when lead surgeons enter and exit operating rooms during procedures.
However, Delashaw’s 37-page legal complaint identifies an array of alleged false statements and sins of omission in the Times’ reporting.
The Times reporters failed to note that Delashaw was not paid according to patient volume for much of his tenure, the complaint states. The Times also neglected to report that Delashaw implemented new quality review processes as chairman, according to the complaint.
In a story published on Feb. 10, the Times included a graph illustrating how Delashaw accounted for more than $76 million in hospital revenue for all of 2015, placing him in the state’s top six brain and spine surgeons. However, Delashaw agreed to a fixed salary when he was elevated to chairman in early April 2015 and had no financial incentive to maximize procedures until he resigned in 2017.
The Times also implied that Delashaw and other surgeons jeopardized patient care by leaving important parts of surgeries to less-experienced colleagues — effectively causing a spike in surgical complications.
But, according to the complaint, the Times chose not publish comments disputing that assertion by surgical fellows such as Dr. Prashant Kelkar, who performed hundreds of surgeries with Delashaw. After he was interviewed by the Times, Kelkar wrote a follow-up email to a reporter on Feb. 6 asserting that Delashaw was always present during critical parts of surgeries.
“In my experience over hundreds of surgeries with Dr. Delashaw, he was scrubbed and actively engaged in the critical part of every surgery without fail,” Kelkar wrote, according to Delashaw’s legal complaint.
“His success certainly leads to scrutiny by others around him, whether that be due to jealousy, anger, greed, change or other. Each instance in medicine where I see someone of power get scrutinized there is always two sides to the story and my ask (sic) of you is that you not ruin a good man’s career to write a 'sexier' story.”
Instead, the suit notes that Times simply wrote: “Another former fellow, Dr. Prashant Kelkar, said Delashaw always came in a timely fashion.”
The series also included a lengthy discussion of the “clipping” versus “coiling” methods for treating brain aneurysms. The Times portrayed the clipping technique — which requires removing a section of skull — as more invasive and therefore more lucrative, and noted that Delashaw’s arrival to SNI was marked by an increase in clipping procedures. But the comparison failed to mention that clipping is often a better option for patients traveling from a distance because it is less likely to require follow-up treatment, according to the suit.
The Times also analyzed thousands of state medical records, but the paper used records for multiple Swedish facilities at its Cherry Hill campus to make inferences about SNI, according to the suit. It was essentially an apples-and-oranges comparison.
The Times analysis suggested that Delashaw’s relentless leadership style caused a spike in surgical complications as SNI’s patient referrals increased. But according to data covering more than 2,800 cases specific only to SNI — rather than the entire Cherry Hill campus — the institute’s patient outcomes were excellent compared to institutes of a similar size, the suit says.
A state Department of Health facilities investigation launched in the wake of the Times series found no increase in surgical complications and infections at SNI between 2012 and 2017 despite a tenfold increase in patient referrals. The investigation — based on interviews with 127 witnesses — also found no evidence to support the claim that lead surgeons were absent during critical parts of surgeries. However, the investigation did find a range of other problems at the Cherry Hill campus. The Times wrote about the DOH report in early August, but subsequently ignored findings that contradicted its earlier reporting about Delashaw, according to the complaint.
Delashaw was recruited to SNI from the University of California following a 20-year career at Oregon Health and Sciences University. After declining an initial offer from former SNI chairman Mark Mayberg, Delashaw agreed to join the institute in the fall of 2013. One of his goals was to combine advanced surgical skills with technology to cure paralysis, according his legal filings.
While at OHSU, Delashaw traveled to Longview weekly to consult with patients at the Kirkpatrick Family Medical Practice. When Delashaw joined SNI, he resumed his weekly trips to Longview and saw patients here until his license was suspended.
“He has patients in Longview, Washington who need his help, for which there is no substitute,” the complaint says.
The libel suit also alleges that the Times’ reporting had a devastating effect on health care in the Pacific Northwest by rendering Delashaw — who treated patients with highly complex brain and spinal conditions — unable to practice medicine. The series also disrupted Delashaw’s vast referral base, which extended throughout the United States and across the globe, according to the complaint.
Despite his reputation as a renowned neurosurgeon, the suit also argues that Delashaw is a private figure, not a “public figure.”
Public figures have a harder time winning libel cases. This is because the U.S. Supreme Court has ruled that they must prove “actual malice” and “reckless disregard for the truth” in libel suits against media organizations.