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Employees can't shield messages in Ascension malpractice case

The sign of Ascension St. Vincent's Riverside is shown July 5, 2022.
Corey Perrine
Florida Times-Union
The sign of Ascension St. Vincent's Riverside is shown July 5, 2022.

An appeals court Wednesday rejected an attempt by employees of Ascension St. Vincent’s hospital to shield text messages from being disclosed in a medical malpractice case against a former physician at the Jacksonville medical center.

A three-judge panel of the 1st District Court of Appeal sided with former patients who filed a consolidated malpractice lawsuit last year against physician R. David Heekin. As part of the case, the plaintiffs sought to obtain employees’ “observations of Dr. Heekin’s purportedly impaired behavior as communicated by text message on their personal cell phones,” Wednesday’s ruling said.

The employees, who are not defendants in the case, sought a protective order, arguing in part that their privacy rights would be violated. A circuit judge denied the request for a protective order, and the appellate panel backed that decision.

“Under the particular facts of this case, petitioners (the employees) have failed to show that they have a clearly established global right to privacy in the personal text messages that is sufficient to outweigh the tailored need for discovery. … No Florida court has ever recognized an absolute right to privacy in text messages,” said the nine-page ruling, written by Judge Thomas Winokur and joined by Judges Timothy Osterhaus and Robert Long.

Heekin, an orthopedic surgeon, has been accused in lawsuits of botching surgeries while he had health problems.

Leadership at Ascension St. Vincent’s Riverside Hospital allowed Heekin to continue his practice for at least a year after operating room staff raised concerns that his failing health may be leading to botched surgeries that were leaving patients with devastating consequences, according to reporting by the Florida Times-Union.

The state Department of Health only began investigating the accusations against the doctor seven months after lawyers notified the agency they were intending to file suit — more than a year after Heekin had left St. Vincent’s, the Times-Union reported.

Heekin gave up his license in July 2021, effectively ending the inquiry.