The Florida Department of Health has reopened an investigation into a Miami obstetrician who took an eight-minute phone call from his stockbroker while delivering a baby. The child suffered permanent brain damage, leading to a $33.8 million medical malpractice award for the parents in April.
An attorney for the mother said Thursday that the health department has asked to interview Marla Dixon of Miami Gardens about her son’s birth on Dec. 2, 2013, at North Shore Medical Center.
“It’s our understanding that they’ve reopened the investigation,” said Richard “Bo” Sharp, whose firm represented Dixon and the baby’s father, Earl Reese-Thornton, Sr.
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A spokesman for the health department, which regulates medical licenses in Florida, wouldn’t say whether the agency is investigating the doctor, Ata Atogho, who works in private practice in North Miami Beach. Atogho did not respond to messages left at his office.
Health department officials first looked into Dixon’s case in September 2016, about a year after the federal lawsuit was filed. State law requires patients to notify the department when filing a malpractice lawsuit. Sharp said the health department reviewed Dixon’s medical records but never interviewed Dixon or Reese-Thornton, who had been in the delivery room for the birth.
A month later, the health department notified Sharp that no violation of medical standards had occurred so the case was closed. Doctors in Tallahassee contracted to review malpractice complaints for the health department recommended closing the complaint. The state said additional action could be taken after a judgment or settlement.
Health department investigations of doctors become public only if a state investigatory panel finds probable cause to pursue the complaint — or if the people involved choose to release the information.
Sharp said he wasn’t surprised that the health department dropped its initial inquiry. In previous malpractice cases he’s handled, he said he has “never seen a finding against a doctor based on one of these complaints.”
In April, a federal judge found Atogho was negligent and caused permanent brain damage to Dixon’s baby by restarting a drug to strengthen her contractions, failing to offer or perform a Cesarean section — and walking away for long periods to deliver another baby and to talk on the phone with his stockbroker.
We’ve never seen a finding against a doctor based on one of these complaints.
Richard ‘Bo’ Sharp, a Miami attorney
When Dixon’s baby was delivered, he was blue in the face and his limbs were limp, according to the verdict handed down by U.S. District Judge Robert Scola. It took a medical team to revive the infant, named Earl Jr., and by then he had severe brain damage from lack of oxygen, according to the lawsuit.
During the trial, a nurse testified that Atogho lied when he added a note to Dixon’s medical record after the delivery indicating that she had refused a C-section.
But despite the large verdict in Dixon’s case, Atogho has not received a reprimand from the Florida Board of Medicine, and no other disciplinary action has been taken against his state medical license as a result of the incident. Possible actions after Board of Medicine review include fines, probation or even emergency restrictions if a doctor is considered a danger to the public.
Atogho continues to practice in South Florida and has privileges at Jackson North Medical Center and Memorial Miramar Hospital.
Atogho is not personally liable for the $33.8 million judgment, either. The U.S. government is on the hook for the money. Dixon and Reese-Thornton were able to sue the United States because, at the time, Atogho worked for a federally funded clinic, the Jessie Trice Community Health Center, where Dixon received her prenatal care.
According to court records, Dixon was not the first patient to sue Atogho for seriously injuring a newborn he delivered in 2013.
According to three lawsuits filed in federal court in Miami-Dade, Atogho delivered two other babies that year who were permanently injured, including one who was brain damaged, and a third who was disabled for life, according to lawsuits filed by the injured infants’ mothers. All of the mothers were teens receiving care at Jessie Trice, which serves many of Miami’s low-income and uninsured residents.