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Westmoreland

Jury clears doctor in Excela stent case

Rich Cholodofsky
| Friday, March 17, 2017, 3:48 p.m.
Excela Health Westmoreland Hospital in Greensburg, one of three hospitals operated by the health system.
Steph Chambers | Tribune-Review
Excela Health Westmoreland Hospital in Greensburg, one of three hospitals operated by the health system.

A Westmoreland County jury deliberated about an hour Friday before finding a cardiac doctor did not implant unnecessary stents in a North Huntingdon man.

By determining that Dr. Ehab Morcos did not commit malpractice, jurors did not have to decide on allegations of corporate negligence on the part of Excela Health.

“This is a win for our patients,” Morcos said as he left the Greensburg courtroom.

The unanimous verdict ended the case brought by Steven Sensenich, 57, who sued Morcos and Excela, claiming five of the seven stents he received during three procedures at Excela Health Westmoreland Hospital in Greensburg in late 2008 were not medically necessary. One procedure resulted in life-threatening complications, the lawsuit claimed.

Stents are mesh tubes used to widen and improve blood flow in blocked arteries.

Sensenich's case against the doctor and hospital was the first to go to trial of the more than 112 malpractice lawsuits filed against Excela, Morcos and Dr. George Bou Samra over allegations the doctors routinely performed unneeded procedures.

Excela in early 2011 sent letters to 192 patients disclosing they may have received unnecessary stents from Morcos and Bou Samra in 2009 and 2010. Sensenich's cardiac procedures were the year prior and not part of Excela's disclosure.

Excela attorney David Johnson said Friday's verdict is an important step to determine the future of 70 remaining malpractice and negligent lawsuits against the doctors and hospital.

“The hospital will continue to be transparent,” Johnson said. “This case was purported to be the plaintiff's best case. The evidence demonstrated the hospital acted responsibly.”

During the two-week trial, jurors heard evidence that Morcos deliberately pushed for the unneeded procedures as part of a pattern of behavior to increase volume at Excela's catherization lab and earn money for himself, his cardiac practice and the hospital.

Excela officials were told about the allegations as early as 2007 but allowed the behavior to continue until 2011, said Victor Pribanic, Sensenich's lawyer.

Pribanic, who represents dozens of clients with pending lawsuits against the doctors and Excela, conceded Friday's verdict will be a factor in the remaining cases.

“It's a useful barometer about those other cases,” Pribanic said.

Throughout the trial before Common Pleas Judge Anthony Marsili, Pribanic contended Morcos intentionally pressured Sensenich to have cardiac procedures he did not need.

In his closing argument, Pribanic called Excela's actions negligent and Morcos' behavior “despicable and reprehensible.”

“They just didn't care because they were making money,” Pribanic told jurors.

Johnson insisted that the hospital did everything it could to correct the doctor's behavior once officials became aware of the problem.

Excela commissioned two independent reviews of its cardiac program in late 2010 and early 2011 that determined Morcos and Bou Samra may have performed unnecessary procedures. Those reviews resulted in the disclosures to patients after Morcos and Bou Samra resigned from their practices at Westmoreland County Cardiology.

Excela administrators testified the resignations came days before the doctors were to be suspended from practicing at the hospital.

Johnson told jurors the hospital struggled to understand there was a problem because of a long-simmering business feud between Westmoreland County Cardiology and a group of Latrobe based-doctors. He suggested that different cardiologists could judge Sensenich's medical condition differently.

“You, as members of the jury, are in the exact same position Excela was in 2008, 2009 and 2010,” Johnson said.

Dan Carroll, the lawyer representing Morcos, told jurors that medical evidence supported the doctor's contention that the stents Sensenich received were needed. He said an independent review by a Texas cardiologist, hired by Excela, in 2009 cleared the doctors and the hospital of any wrongdoing.

Excela's current administrative team has since determined that 2009 review was unreliable.

“After he (Sensenich) gets it done, there is never nine years later any chest pain. He had a spectacular recovery,” Carroll said.

Morcos and Excela combined their defense in the Sensenich lawsuit but are adversaries in another civil case pending in Allegheny County. In that case, Morcos and Bou Samra sued for defamation Excela and the Latrobe cardiologists who first raised the unnecessary stent allegations.

Lynn Bell, the lawyer for Morcos' cardiology practice, told jurors Friday the malpractice allegations were a product of the financial dispute among the two doctor groups.

“There is a great deal of disdain for each other,” Bell said.

Rich Cholodofsky is a Tribune-Review staff writer. Reach him at 724-830-6293 or rcholodofsky@tribweb.com.

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