GJEL Accident Attorneys were once again honored by inclusion in the 2009 Edition of Best Lawyers in America. Below is the cover story about GJEL from the Summer 2009 issue of San Francisco’s Best Lawyers magazine.

Gillin Jacobson Ellis & Larsen’s Well Publicized Fight Against Unnecessary Heart Surgeries

Some years ago in the town of Redding in northern California, an unusually high number of residents were advised by doctors at a local hospital to undergo major heart surgeries including double or triple-bypasses. Hundreds took the doctors’ advice and had the surgery—and many ended up with serious health problems. Rumors began to circulate about the doctors and Redding Medical Center, where the surgeries were performed. Were these operations necessary? Or were they being pushed by the corporation that owned the hospital, Tenet Healthcare Corporation, in order to make higher profits?

best_lawyers_coverTipped off by a Catholic priest who almost underwent surgery at the hospital before learning from other doctors that his heart was completely healthy, the FBI launched a three-year investigation that culminated in a raid by federal officials of Redding Medical Center. What resulted was a series of legal actions against Tenet and its chief administrators by a number of different groups, including the Securities and Exchange Commission and the United States Department of Justice. In 2003, Tenet agreed to pay a fine of $54 million related to charges of medical necessity fraud; namely, that it billed the government for surgeries that patients did not need. Tenet did not admit any wrongdoing, and the resolution pre-empted any civil or criminal charges against Tenet by the federal government. Tenet also sold the hospital which has since been renamed. According to the New York Times, it was the largest settlement in history for such a cause of action.

As one of the biggest medical fraud cases in U.S. history, the Tenet investigation was featured on a 2003 CBS News 60 Minutes story and also detailed in the 2007 book Coronary: A True Story of Medicine Gone Awry, by former New York Times editor and reporter Stephen Klaidman. Ultimately, a number of top corporate officials left Tenet, which had been the second-largest publicly traded healthcare company in the country. In addition to the government’s actions, civil lawsuits by private law firms were a key part of the effort against Tenet, as hundreds of patients filed cases claiming they’d undergone unnecessary heart surgeries so the corporation could make more money.

For the personal injury law firm Gillin Jacobson Ellis & Larsen in Orinda, California, its role in the Tenet case set a high mark in its 25-year history of helping seriously injured plaintiffs. The firm represented 186 people who claimed unnecessary cardiac operations at Redding Medical Center. A total of about 800 people sued the corporation, with three other personal injury law firms representing the bulk of the rest of the patients.

Most of the civil lawsuits made the same basic claim. “It turns out they were doing unnecessary bypasses. Hundreds of people had their health ruined, and many people died,” says Andrew R. Gillin, one of the firm’s founding partners. “They were doing double or triple the number of cardiac procedures” as normal, he says, but at first no one noticed anything amiss. “Redding is a relatively poor, rural community. Maybe that’s part of the reason that people didn’t question these surgeries as much as they might have in metropolitan area.”

The civil litigation continued for about three years before settling 60 days before trial was to start. The Gillin firm obtained a settlement of $111.7 million for it’s 186 clients, while the other plaintiffs’ firms landed similar enormous settlements for their clients (The cases were not a class action but remained individual lawsuits against Tenet).

It was not the first time the Gillin firm was involved in a case involving public policy and consumer rights. In May of 2002, partner Luke Ellis was one of the lead negotiators in a $1 billion settlement against a medical device manufacturer on behalf of 3,500 people who needed replacement of defective hips. In another case that helped increase safety procedures in the natural gas industry, Ellis obtained a $10.65 million for the family of a pipeline worker killed in an explosion. “whether the amount involved is small or large, our goal is to obtain justice for those who deserve it and heighten standards of corporate responsibility,” says Ellis.

Since the Gillin firm was launched in 1972, it has obtained many recoveries, but the Tenet case stands out. “We’re pretty proud of that one,” says Gillin, who, like other members of the six-lawyer firm, began his legal career as a public service attorney working for low-income people in need, and sees his current focus as an extension of that work. “It is certainly one of the most gratifying cases we’ve done.”