A jury has ordered a California hospital chain to pay physician Michael Fitzgibbons $5.7 million after its former CEO allegedly framed him by planting a gun in his car.
In 2006, Fitzgibbons—an infectious disease specialist and former chief of staff at Western Medical Center—was arrested in the hospital parking lot after police found a pair of black gloves and a handgun in his car. Police questioned Fitzgibbons and searched his car after an anonymous 9-1-1 call claimed that the doctor had brandished the gun in traffic.
DNA evidence from the gloves and gun exonerated Fitzgibbons, and he was never charged.
However, the arrest followed a series of disagreements between Fitzgibbons and the leadership of Integrated Healthcare Holdings Incorporated (IHHI), which owned the Santa Ana hospital. Fitzgibbons and his attorney—Ted Mathews—alleged that IHHI's then-CEO, Bruce Mogel, had framed Fitzgibbons in an effort to silence him.
Specifically, Mathews said that the frame was part of Mogel's attempt to "humble" Fitzgibbons after the doctor won a legal victory over IHHI in June 2006.
During the trial, former IHHI President Larry Anderson testified that Mogel had instructed him to create a $10,000 contract for a "scary guy" named Mikey Delgado immediately after Fitzgibbon's legal victory. The contract was for unnecessary work on the health system's website. In his testimony, Anderson said he realized after Fitzgibbons was arrested that the contract was actually for the frame. Mathews told the jury that the $10,000 was used to "[get] Dr. Fitz set up."
IHHI's board learned of the $10,000 contract during Anderson's deposition in 2008. Instead of firing Mogel, the board awarded him an eight-month consultancy worth $43,750 per month, Mathews says. This showed that IHHI board "knew what Mogel did to Dr. Fitzgibbons," Mathews told the jury, adding, "They ratified it, and they gave him a golden handshake goodbye."
The jury ultimately decided that IHHI acted with "malice, oppression, or fraud against Dr. Fitzgibbons." It ordered the hospital to pay the doctor $5.2 million for emotional distress and $500,000 in punitive damages (Campbell, Orange Country Register, 2/13; Campbell, Orange Country Register, 2/8).