WEST PALM BEACH (CN) - A prominent South Florida heart surgeon claims a CNN investigative report unfairly blamed him for the death of his infant patients and published outrageous statements that the babies were perishing like "sacrificial lambs."
Michael Black, lead cardiac surgeon at St. Mary's Medical Center in West Palm Beach, sued CNN and several of the network's reporters on Feb. 16 for defamation, claiming they published a biased report in which he is criticized for the deaths of severely ill child patients.
According to the 208-page lawsuit, the network concocted "an outrageous, headline-grabbing story" that portrayed Black as an incompetent and money-hungry doctor who performed heart surgeries on children without regard for their safety.
The lawsuit alleges that CNN "consciously failed to mention" that Dr. Black "has performed thousands of successful pediatric cardiac surgeries," and has received "numerous awards and honors throughout his career."
At the center of the battle for Black's reputation is CNN's assertion that there were "shocking numbers" of deaths in his child heart surgery program at St. Mary's.
According to the original CNN article, out of 48 open heart surgeries performed on pediatric patients in the program, CNN "independently ... determined that six infants died."
"From those numbers, CNN was able to calculate the death rate for open heart surgeries as 12.5%, more than three times the national average of 3.3% cited by the Society for Thoracic Surgeons," the article reads.
But Black argues that CNN's stats were misleading. He claims the network sloppily compared the national mortality rate for both open and closed heart surgery to his program's mortality rate for only open heart surgery (the more dangerous of the two). As the hospital owner Tenet Healthcare stated in a letter to CNN, the network's reporters essentially "divided an apple by an orange and compared it to a banana," according to the lawsuit.
If CNN's staff had not been preoccupied with crucifying him, Black argues, they would have noted that the risk-adjusted death rate for his pediatric patients was within the normal range.
Moreover, Black claims, the Society for Thoracic Surgeons gave his surgical program a two-out-of-three star rating, and an STS seasonal report confirmed the program did not have an abnormally high number of deaths.
Despite the hospital's objections to CNN's statistics and critical tone, the network repeatedly published and aired stories about the surgical program's perceived failures over a months-long period beginning in June 2015. Segments were broadcast to wide audiences on the CNN shows New Day and Anderson Cooper 360.
According to the lawsuit, the negative press destroyed Black's reputation and contributed to the August 2015 shutdown of St. Mary's pediatric cardiac unit.
Black says that in the wake of the CNN report, he received death threats through his home phone, and in one instance, a caller told him he would be "butchered just like [his] patients."
The doctor is demanding damages for defamation on the part of the network, its chief medical correspondent Elizabeth Cohen, host Anderson Cooper, editor Dana Ford and producer John Bonifield.
He also wants recompense from purported CNN source Kelly Robinson, a patient advocate who he claims intruded in his medical ward, harassed his hospital coworkers and crusaded to frighten families of his child patients by portraying him as a "baby-killing" doctor.
Authored by Cohen and Bonifield, the original article about Black remains on CNN's website with a sub-heading of "Babies as sacrificial lambs," placed directly above a picture of the doctor.
The phrase was evidently pulled from the quote of a grieving mother, Nneka Campbell, whose child died after undergoing heart surgery at St. Mary's.
According to CNN, the woman said she had been misled about the number of prior child deaths at the hospital.
"There is no room for institutions that are lying to families to get them to offer up their babies as sacrificial lambs," Campbell reportedly told CNN.
According to Courthouse News records, Black and St. Mary's have faced at least three medical malpractice claims in Palm Beach County court arising from the deaths of pediatric patients.