The Seattle Times has asked a federal judge to dismiss eight defamation claims made against the newspaper by Dr. Johnny Delashaw, arguing the suspended neurosurgeon failed to specify how parts of an award-winning series were false.
Delashaw, a Longview native, sued the Times and a former colleague for libel and defamation in April. He is claiming the paper knowingly published false and misleading information in a series of stories that raised questions about patient care under his leadership at the Swedish Neuroscience Institute in Seattle.
The former SNI chairman has also accused his ex-coworker, SNI neurosurgeon Charles Cobbs, of engaging in a civil conspiracy in an attempt to oust him from his position. Delashaw is also alleging the Times and Cobbs ruined his business relationship with Swedish and violated the state’s Consumer Protection Act by disrupting health care in the Pacific Northwest.
Documents filed by the Times in U.S. District Court last week argue those claims should also be dismissed. Cobbs filed his own motion to dismiss all claims against him on Monday, arguing Delashaw’s complaint falls short of federal standards for libel and defamation lawsuits.
Motions to dismiss are frequently filed by defendants in civil suits, and they often help opposing parties draw battle lines in legal disputes.
While the Times moved to dismiss eight claims, the paper did not seek to dismiss an additional five defamation claims outlined in Delashaw’s original complaint.
Delashaw voluntarily resigned as chairman of SNI in March 2017, about three weeks after the Times series was published. The state medical commission summarily suspended his license two months later, determining that Delashaw — who was not practicing at the time — posed “an imminent threat” to public safety because he had allegedly created a “toxic” work environment at Swedish.
The move barred Delashaw, a Mark Morris High School graduate, from consulting with local patients during weekly visits to the Kirkpatrick Family Care medical clinic in Longview.
A two-week hearing on whether Delashaw’s medical license should be reinstated concluded in late April, and a decision by a three-member panel is still pending.
The commission is required by law to decide his case within 90 days.
Delashaw has accused the Times of falsely reporting that he and other surgeons at SNI endangered patients by double-booking surgeries to make more money.
His legal complaint identifies 13 allegedly false statements in the Times series, including an assertion that he was paid based on patient volume. According to Delashaw, the Times failed to report he was on a fixed salary that rewarded quality — not quantity — during the majority of his time at SNI.
Delashaw also argues the paper reported misleading quality data for multiple Swedish Cherry Hill facilities to suggest patient care at SNI deteriorated after he became chairman of the institute in 2014.
(Data analyzed by an independent firm shows that patient outcomes at SNI were excellent under Delashaw’s leadership, and his personal quality metrics were better than the national average.)
“The overall thesis and message conveyed by the articles were false, defamatory and caused serious damage to the reputation and career of Dr. Johnny Delashaw, injured patients who needed care, and damaged the quality of health care in the Pacific Northwest,” Delashaw’s complaint states.
However, the Times argues that Delashaw failed to state how eight of the 13 claims he identified in his complaint were defamatory.
“A defamation claim must be based on a statement that is provably false,” the paper argues.
The times is also arguing that Delashaw, as an “internationally renowned surgeon,” is a public figure. This is a key legal point because public figures have a greater burden of proof in libel cases. They must prove “actual malice,” which is defined by the courts as publishing a report knowing it was false or demonstrating a “reckless disregard for the truth.” Delashaw contends that he’s not a public figure, arguing he only rose to prominence as a result of negative media coverage.
The Times also claims it cannot be held liable for ruining Delashaw’s business relationship with Swedish because he voluntarily stepped down from his position. And the paper argues media organizations cannot violate consumer protection laws by publishing news stories.
In addition to unspecified monetary damages, Delashaw is seeking a court order requiring the Times to publish a retraction and remove allegedly false statements about him from its website. He is also asking for an order prohibiting the Times and Cobbs from making allegedly false statements about him in the future.