WINFIELD – A motion request has been denied to protect a doctor who has testified that a few of his patients said they had been solicited to join the parade of lawsuits filed against Dr. John A. King and Putnam General Hospital.
That denial came during a sometimes heated motion hearing Wednesday before Judge Ed Eagloski in Putnam Circuit Court.
In a deposition taken last month, Dr. Rick Houdersheldt said he was approached by three or four patients in 2004 who complained they had been approached and solicited by representatives of the Charleston law firm of Curry and Tolliver to file suits against King and Putnam General. One of the patients allegedly told Houdersheldt that he had been offered $10,000 to become a plaintiff against King and Putnam General.
Somehow, attorneys say, Houdersheldt's deposition was leaked to the public. During Wednesday's hearing, both side pointed fingers at the other for the leak.
Arden Curry II of Curry and Tolliver, which represents many of the plaintiffs in the cases against King and Putnam General, said Houdersheldt's deposition was given to the press with key portions highlighted. He asserted that West Virginia Citizens Against Lawsuit Abuse was behind the dissemination of the material.
"CALA's desire is to come in and damage the reputation of plaintiff's attorneys," Curry said.
William Druckman, who also represents some plaintiffs in the case, agreed.
"There's a TV camera here for the first time during one of these hearings," he said. "Don't think for a minute that the TV camera is just a coincidence.
"Of course it's a publicity stunt. CALA sent it (the deposition) out to get TV and The West Virginia Record here. It's a tactic to contaminate the jury pool."
Kevin Oncken, an attorney for the hospital, said during Wednesday's hearing that Houdersheldt testified that these patients, which he did not name, were concerned their names and medical histories were out there. Oncken also said that two Curry and Tolliver attorneys present for Houdersheldt's deposition – Thomas H. Vanderford IV and David K. Schwirian – did not refute or contradict the doctor's allegations.
Oncken also said Wednesday that Houdersheldt told Charleston attorney Bob Martin, who also is working on the case, that he received threatening phone calls afterward that "clearly referenced the deposition and his testimony." The calls allegedly contained vulgarity and threatening language.
"They made reference to the impact of his testimony that it was to take down important plaintiffs attorneys in West Virginia," Oncken said in court Wednesday.
Houdersheldt told attorneys he felt threatened and harassed by the calls.
"We feel we have a duty to stop this type of activity," Oncken said as he made his case for the protective order.
Oncken said Curry told him last week that he hadn't provided the transcript of Houdersheldt's deposition to anyone other than the State Bar. Curry gave it to the Bar because of the allegations of solicitation mentioned. Oncken went on to say anyone involved with the case who knows the source of the threatening phone calls to Houdersheldt identify it.
Eagloski, however, he knew of no case law or statutory law that provides for such a protective order as the one requested for Houdersheldt.
Oncken replied that soliciting individuals to become plaintiffs in a case is illegal and that offering cash to become a plaintiff or to join a lawsuit is illegal and improper.
Eagloski again asked Oncken's team of attorneys to provide case law to back up their request. Oncken said he couldn't do so
"The court is empowered … has the authority and power to enter orders deemed important and necessary," Oncken said. "It's an inherent power to issue orders dealing with witnesses in a case over which you have authority."
"Get me case law and I'll hear it," Eagloski said. "This is an issue for the State Bar."
After some more debating, Eagloski then told Oncken that until he could offer such case law he needed to stop talking and step back behind the bar in the courtroom, which was packed with 26 attorneys.
Houdersheldt was subpoenaed Tuesday night to appear at Wednesday's hearing. He did show up late and was escorted through the courtroom. But Eagloski refused to let Houdersheldt testify.
Before the heated exchange with Eagloski, Oncken also mentioned that on Tuesday he had received information of potential improper contact with witnesses and improper access to records at Putnam General by Curry and Tolliver.
He said Dr. David Seidler, a former emergency room physician and current administrator at Charleston Area Medical Center, was working with Curry and Tolliver. And now that CAMC is operating Putnam General, Seidler would have access to the premises.
Oncken said that attorney Jack Tolliver, who also is a physician, had told him that Seidler is a retained consulting expert in the King cases. Tolliver and Seidler were business partners when both of them were at CAMC.
"I would ask this court for an order asking Seidler not to have contact with plaintiffs, no influence, no interaction and not to remove materials from Putnam General Hospital," Oncken said.
Eagloski also did not rule on that motion.
More than 100 patients and families have filed lawsuits against King and Putnam General since 2004. King was an orthopedic surgeon who practiced at Putnam General from November 2002 until June 2003. King has received national headlines over the lawsuits which claim he maimed and even killed patients.
In August, HCA said it was going to turn Putnam General into an urgent-care facility, citing the King lawsuits and a campaign by trial lawyers as reasons for the move. But CAMC soon stepped in and bought the hospital and kept it open. The complete sale still is awaiting final approval, but CAMC now is running the facility.
Steve Cohen, executive director of CALA, said the deposition was a matter of public relation.
"This trolling for clients is just another example of personal injury lawyer greed in West Virginia, much like the crass solicitation of clients at Sago," he said. "In this case, it threatened to deprive Putnam County of its hospital altogether."