JACKSONVILLE, Fla. — Hundreds of patients who say they were injured by an orthopedic surgeon in Jacksonville could receive punitive damages.
A judge found that there is enough evidence for a jury to conclude that Ascension St. Vincent's Riverside hospital executives failed to stop Dr. David Heekin from performing surgeries despite concerns about his behavior.
The judge cited complaints that Heekin was screaming at nurses and patients, and showed signs of impairment, including being unable to speak clearly or grasp surgical tools.
"My pre-op that I had with him I noticed his speech was off, things were off with him, and I asked someone in the office about it and they said he was fine," Plaintiff Jacqueline Rivera said.
Heekin performed Jacqueline Rivera's knee surgery years ago. She is a veteran and says she never guessed it would change her life.
"I still have swelling. I still can't stand up for long periods of time. I can't walk for a long distance," Rivera said.
The order signed by Circuit Judge Bruce Anderson says despite being warned about Heekin's behavior hospital executives allowed Heekin to continue practicing and assured patients he was fine.
"Punitive damages are designed not to put a company out of business, but to cost the company if it's proven to be true enough money, that it's going to dissuade people from making choices that puts people's lives and health at risk just to make more profit," Lawyer Barry Ansbacher said.
Lawyer Barry Ansbacher says punitive damages can be awarded when there is enough evidence for a jury to determine someone acted recklessly. Florida law sets caps on the damages, which Ansbacher says the jury decides on.
"Depending on what's proven, would either be three times or four times the compensatory damages, or the cap dollar amount wise would be 1 million or 4 million, whichever is greater," Ansbacher said.
The hospital and Heekin deny the malpractice claims but Rivera holds them responsible.
"It's heartbreaking that Ascension St. Vincent let this go on for so long. Looking at their bottom line I guess over patient's health," Rivera said.
Heekin suffers from a degenerative neurological disorder that impairs speech, balance and emotional control. He retired in 2020. More than 400 lawsuits have been filed so far.