Summerlin hospital files defamation suit stemming from TB outbreak

Summerlin Hospital Medical Center filed a defamation lawsuit Thursday against Las Vegas attorney Robert Cottle in connection with comments he made last month at a news conference.

The law firm John H. Cotton & Associates Ltd. filed the lawsuit on behalf of the hospital in Clark County District Court against both Cottle and The Cottle Firm. The complaint stems from comments Cottle made about last year’s tuberculosis outbreak at the hospital.

“It’s a sad day when companies sue the lawyers that try to guard the public trust,” Cottle told the Las Vegas Review-Journal.

Cottle said he had talked to Cotton about resolving the defamation claim “amicably” and was surprised to learn he had been sued.

“I was under the impression as of yesterday that we were still discussing a resolution through factually accurate statements from each party,” Cottle said Thursday.

The lawsuit specifically alleges that Cottle made the following false and defamatory statement about the treatment of 25-year-old Vanessa White, who died July 1:

“There may have been a motivation to find a cause for her condition other than tuberculosis. If the cause was some other infection, they wouldn’t need the state government in there to investigate … A tuberculosis diagnosis invites oversight and opens up a can of worms.”

White was diagnosed with tuberculosis after her death. Cottle has filed a medical malpractice lawsuit against the hospital on behalf of her husband, Ruben. Also named as defendants in the malpractice case are numerous nurses and doctors.

The lawsuit, filed May 13, claims malpractice led to the tuberculosis-related deaths of Ruben White’s wife and twin daughters last year. Cottle held a news conference with Ruben White on May 14 at The Cottle Firm’s offices.

“In the context of the entire orchestrated press conference, this statement refers to Summerlin Hospital and blatantly implies an intentional failure to or concealment of a diagnosis of tuberculosis,” according to the defamation complaint. “Such an allegation is false.”

Under Nevada law, according to the hospital’s complaint, only a physician may make a medical diagnosis.

“None of the numerous physicians involved in the care in the White lawsuit are employees of Summerlin Hospital,” the complaint states. “Summerlin Hospital has never interfered with the ability of a licensed physician to reach a medically appropriate differential diagnosis for any patient at its facility and did not do so in this instance.”

The defamation lawsuit also notes that numerous, independent physicians were involved in the matter both before and after Vanessa White’s admission to Summerlin Hospital.

“Based upon the information contained in the White lawsuit demonstrating the number of physicians unable to make a diagnosis, this was clearly a difficult case to diagnose notwithstanding all their efforts,” according to the defamation lawsuit.

The hospital’s counsel sent Cottle a letter May 22 that demanded a written retraction and apology for making the damaging statements by June 2, according to the defamation lawsuit, but the defendants did not do so.

Rob Freymuller, Summerlin Hospital’s chief executive officer, released the following statement Thursday:

“Summerlin Hospital extends its deepest sympathies to the family involved in this situation. However, there is no evidence to support the statement made by this attorney. It is false and insulting to the dedicated employees of Summerlin Hospital. We will not allow attorneys or others to make such false and defamatory statements about our hospital and its employees without defending ourselves.”

The lawsuit seeks monetary damages and a declaration from the court that Cottle’s statements were false.

“We hope that today’s filing will send a message to those attempting to garner publicity from this situation for their own financial reasons and will encourage them to speak truthfully and accurately,” Cotton said in a statement Thursday.

According to the malpractice complaint, Vanessa White was admitted to Summerlin Hospital on May 9, 2013.

Vanessa White’s twin girls, Abigail and Emma, were born prematurely “in substantial part because of the failure to identify and treat” their mother’s tuberculosis, according to the complaint.

Her symptoms were treated at Summerlin Hospital, but she wasn’t diagnosed with tuberculosis until after she died. She died July 1 at a California medical facility.

Emma White died June 1 at Summerlin Hospital, and Abigail White died Aug. 1 at Summerlin Hospital.

The claims in Ruben White’s lawsuit include gross negligence and wrongful death.

At his news conference last month, Cottle said he expects a jury to award his client more than $25 million for pain and suffering, although caps on medical malpractice verdicts mean a judge likely would reduce the judgment to $1.5 million or less.

In April, the Nevada Occupational Safety and Health Administration fined Summerlin Hospital a total of $39,600 for violations related to last year’s TB outbreak.

At least 20 hospital employees were exposed to and contracted tuberculosis, OSHA said.

Contact reporter Carri Geer Thevenot at cgeer@reviewjournal.com or 702-384-8710. Find her on Twitter: @CarriGeer.