GREG LOWER

A jury has awarded $1.7 million to a former Neosho Memorial Regional Medical Center anesthetist after a civil trial concluded last Friday.

The jury found in favor of plaintiff Gregg Rickabaugh, Certified Registered Nurse Anesthetist, in his suit against NMRMC, its Chief Executive Officer Dennis Franks, and Chief Medical Officer Charles Van Houden.

The lawsuit claimed that the hospital had breached its contract with Rickabaugh and his firm, Chanute Anesthesia Services, in 2016 and that Franks and Van Houden interfered with the contract and Rickabaugh’s later employment.

Rickabaugh’s attorney, William Skepnek, said the jury reached a verdict after about 3 ½ hours of deliberation and awarded Rickabaugh $86,381 from the hospital and the same amount plus $1.5 million from Franks. The jury did not find any liability against Van Houden and denied punitive damages. Rickabaugh had sought $5.2 million.

“NMRMC appreciates the time and effort of the judge and jury in deciding this contract lawsuit,” a prepared statement said on behalf of the hospital and its attorney, David Brake. “The verdict of $86,381 against the hospital will be discussed with the Board of Trustees. We have no further comment on the matter at this time. As always, our hospital remains committed to delivering safe, high-quality care to the patients we serve.”

Rickabaugh said the situation changed his life for the worse and that Franks and Van Houden knew what they were doing. He said he has received no apology.

He added there are nice, hard-working clinicians at NMRMC and so much good going on, but he looks at cities that have lost hospitals and sees that it could happen close to home.

“It was a good outcome,” Skepnek said.

Skepnek’s law partner, Brennan Fagan, who also worked on the case, said Rickabaugh feels vindicated and could have asked for a change of venue but “he wanted everybody in Chanute to understand how the hospital operates,” Fagan said.

Rickabaugh and CAS concluded a two-year contract at the end of 2015 and NMRMC notified Rickabaugh the prior October the hospital intended to terminate it. 

The two sides were in negotiations, but by the first week of May 2016 the hospital had only given Rickabaugh a draft of a new contract.

But the jury ruled that by their actions, the two sides still operated under a continuation of the previous contract.

After the first week of May, officials received an anonymous letter critical of Franks, who reportedly blamed Rickabaugh for sending the letter.

Rickabaugh admitted writing a critical, anonymous letter in a 2002 incident, but denied writing the 2016 letter and said he did not know anything about it at that time. After receiving the 2016 letter, the hospital contracted with another firm, Clinical Colleagues, Inc., ceasing the ongoing negotiations with Rickabaugh’s company, CAS.

Skepnek said Van Houden painted Rickabaugh in uncomplimentary terms as justification for changing anesthetists, which the plaintiffs demonstrated were not true.

Rickabaugh also said the CCI contract paid for 4,300 anesthetics per year, instead of 2,400. During the 18 months before his departure, he said the hospital made $30,000 profit on anesthetic services, but lost $600,000 in the following 18 months.

Skepnek said he was amazed that the hospital used concerns about anesthetic coverage as justification to terminate Rickabaugh based on an erroneous number of surgeries that was not discovered until it was pointed out at the trial.

Rickabaugh said he has worked at four other hospitals and all had better work environments than NMRMC. He said there is a lack of leadership and accountability.

“It’s a very corrupt work environment,” he said, adding that he does not want to go back to NMRMC, but does want to talk to the county commission about getting new leadership.

Fagan said there have been no conversations with the defendants about an appeal, but defendants usually file an appeal in cases like this.

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