SE hospital district files malpractice suit over failed Bert Fish merger
A year after a judge threw out a merger for Bert Fish Medical Center, the Southeast Volusia Hospital District has filed a lawsuit claiming legal malpractice against their former attorney and his law firm.
In the 26-page document filed Thursday, Bert Fish and the hospital district asks the court for monetary damages, including $3.4 million in out-of-pocket expenses, from Jim Heekin and the Orlando-based law firm of Lowndes, Drosdick, Doster, Kantor and Reed, P.A.
The lawsuit follows a February 2011 trial challenging the merger brought by the Bert Fish Foundation, a philanthropic organization that gave the hospital to the public district in 1966. Judge Richard Graham ruled the 21 closed-door meetings held over 16 months leading up to the medical center partnering with Adventist Health Systems violated the state’s Sunshine Law.
Based on Graham’s ruling, the hospital district and its attorney Louis Mrachek of West Palm Beach claim the merger was rescinded because of Lowndes’ “failure to properly advise the Plaintiffs through the merger process to comply with the Florida Sunshine Law.”
The suit backs up its allegation using testimony from the trial before Graham. It says Heekin testified the meetings where the merger was discussed began with him or someone from Lowndes advising the boards they were exempt from the Sunshine Law and the board members followed that advice.
Heekin also testified Adventist paid $40 million for an $18 million hospital, the lawsuit states. Bert Fish officials claim the failure of the July 2010 merger cost the medical center and district almost $22 million.
The suit goes on to say Heekin testified he had some personal responsibility for not having identified Sunshine Law violations had occurred and that he admitted he did no specific research before any of the 21 meetings to determine whether they could be legally closed.
The lawsuit also claims Heekin said in court he “informed Plaintiff’s they may have a malpractice claim against him.”
In his lawsuit Mrachek levels claims of professional negligence, breach of contract and breach of fiduciary duty against Lowndes.
When reached by telephone for comment on the lawsuit, Dan Gerber, attorney for Rumberger Kirk & Caldwell, which is representing Lowndes, said someone would issue a statement at a later time. No statement was immediately forthcoming Friday afternoon.
Mrachek could not be reached for comment and Bert Fish Chief Operating Officer/President Steve Harrell did not have much to say on the legal action.
“I have not read it, but I know pre-suit (settlement) negotiations were going nowhere and this was the best next step,” Harrell said by telephone Friday afternoon.