It took Dr. Richard Dellerson nearly four decades to develop a reputation as one of South Florida’s foremost experts in emergency medicine — and just a few strokes of his pen to bring it all crumbling down.
Dellerson, 78, was a sought-after witness for medical malpractice lawsuits, and he testified in dozens of cases over the years, a side job that earned him extra income but that eventually ruined his name.
“I had an excellent reputation that has been destroyed,” Dellerson said. “It hasn’t been an easy route for me.”
In 2013, he nearly lost his license and was barred from testifying as an expert witness ever again after the Florida Board of Medicine found that Dellerson had made “misleading, deceptive or fraudulent” statements in two separate malpractice cases by exaggerating his medical credentials.
Then in June, a Pinellas County judge found that Dellerson had not met the legal requirement to be an expert witness in a 2009 case brought by a patient’s family against an emergency room doctor at St. Anthony’s Hospital in St. Petersburg.
The discredited doctor concedes that the road to dishonor began with his own failure to ensure that he met the legal requirements for testifying as an expert witness. “I was careless in not reading them thoroughly,” he said. “There was never an intent to deceive anybody.”
In order for a patient to file a medical malpractice lawsuit in Florida, state law requires that a licensed doctor first review a patient’s medical records and issue a written opinion finding that the attending physician did not meet the standard of care.
But Dellerson’s story also highlights flaws in Florida’s regulation of expert witnesses for medical malpractice cases — regulations adopted since 2003 by state legislators in an effort to control rising medical malpractice insurance premiums.
Expert witnesses are intended to weed out frivolous medical malpractice lawsuits. Before suing a doctor or hospital for malpractice and negligence in Florida, patients are required by law to hire a licensed physician to review their medical records and to give a sworn statement that the attending doctor or hospital staff failed meet the standard of care.
And though Florida legislators and Gov. Rick Scott tightened regulations on expert witnesses in 2013, doctors have complained for years about fellow physicians who give false testimony against their peers.
“This is a relatively big problem,” said Dr. Dennis Agliano, an otolaryngologist in the Tampa area and past president of the Florida Medical Association. “The problem is not the attorneys. It’s not the system. The problem is doctors who make false testimony, because an attorney can’t get anywhere in a case without an expert witness who says, ‘This guy screwed up’.”
In Florida, expert witnesses can testify in medical malpractice cases only if they have practiced in the same specialty as the doctor who is being sued.
Malpractice cases against emergency room doctors have a higher bar: The expert witness must have worked with patients in a hospital emergency room within the five years before testifying or signing a sworn statement in a case.
Dellerson, who has practiced medicine in South Florida since 1967, has worked as an emergency room doctor at several South Florida hospitals.
He was chief of emergency medicine for Memorial Regional Hospital and helped to establish Broward County’s trauma network in the early 1990s. He also has served as medical director for the Hollywood fire department — a largely administrative position that he still holds for Pembroke Pines.
But his last emergency room shift was in late 2001 at Broward General Hospital. And though he worked at Miami Children’s Hospital from 2001 to 2006, Pinellas County Circuit Judge Patricia A. Muscarella found that Dellerson did not treat patients in the emergency room, and that the pediatric environment in Miami was not similar to the emergency room at St. Anthony’s Hospital.
Dellerson said he acted as an expert witness in the case after clearing it with the attorney for the patient’s family, Wil Florin, prior to agreeing to act as an expert witness in the case, and that Florin’s office produced the affidavit.
“What I was led to believe, based on the opinion of a lawyer, was that my experience at Miami Children’s Hospital, although it was a pediatric hospital, was adequate to conform to the standard,” Dellerson said.
Dr. Scott Plantz, the emergency room physician at St. Anthony’s who was sued in 2009 based on Dellerson’s written expert medical opinion, said he spent the past eight years trying to expose what he calls Dellerson’s “fraud.”
“Basically, he defrauded people,” said Plantz, who voluntarily gave up his Florida medical license and now teaches medicine at the University of Louisville in Kentucky. “And then when we caught him, he came up with an excuse.”
Basically, he defrauded people.
Dr. Scott Plantz, University of Louisville
Court records show that in April 2009, two months after he was served with the malpractice lawsuit, Plantz told the patient’s family and attorney that Dellerson was unqualified to act as an expert witness. Plantz moved to have the case dismissed, but the court never acted on his motion until last month.
The judge did not rule on the merits of the malpractice allegations against Plantz, including that he acted carelessly by misreading an X-ray — charges that Plantz vigorously denies. But because the statute of limitations has passed for the patient’s family to sue, it is unclear if the case will continue.
Plantz said he’s not the only doctor to have been defrauded by Dellerson’s expert witness testimony. He said that from 2007 to 2010, Dellerson fraudulently signed sworn statements in at least 10 other medical malpractice cases.
According to Plantz, Dellerson was neither board certified nor clinically active within five years before signing expert witness opinions, as required by Florida law.
“Those statements, in my opinion, are bald-faced lies,” Plantz said.
Wil Florin, a Tampa area trial attorney who hired Dellerson as an expert witness in the malpractice case against Plantz, said he intends to appeal the Pinellas County Circuit judge’s ruling. And he insists that Dellerson met the statutory requirement to be an expert witness in the Plantz case and in the 10 other malpractice lawsuits in which Plantz has accused Dellerson of fraud.
He argued that the judge relied on the wrong statute, and that Florida law does not require Dellerson to have worked “an active shift” in a hospital emergency room during the five years prior to acting as an expert witness in the Plantz case.
Besides, Florin said, Dellerson’s experience working for Miami Children’s Hospital would qualify him as an expert witness.
“It’s clearly wrong,” he said of the judge’s order.
Florin added that each of the doctors sued in the other 10 malpractice cases where Dellerson acted as an expert witness were represented by defense attorneys and they settled out of court. He accused Plantz of being “politically involved” in targeting expert witness doctors like Dellerson.
“Every doctor that gets sued almost universally thinks they're a victim,” Florin said. “These guys all have defense counsels and cases settled, and now they're complaining they were a victim. They had defense lawyers who didn’t think there was a problem with Dellerson’s qualifications.”
To testify as an expert witness, a Florida doctor must have a Medical Expert Witness Certificate from the Florida Board of Medicine. In 2016, there were 10 Florida doctors with an expert witness certificate, and 1,838 out-of-state doctors with an active certificate — a reflection, critics say, of doctors’ reluctance to testify against fellow physicians.
“The reason they settled,” he added, “is because Dellerson was qualified.... I think that’s clearly the reason, as opposed to they missed something.”
Florin said the state Board of Medicine, which is primarily made up of physicians, tried to make an example of Dellerson for testifying against fellow doctors. The panel voted to revoke Dellerson’s license in June 2013 after finding that the doctor signed two sworn statements claiming to be board certified in emergency medicine after his certification had expired.
After Dellerson appealed the revocation, the medical board agreed to settle the case, issuing a reprimand and a $7,500 fine, and barring the doctor from testifying as an expert witness for as long as he holds a Florida medical license.
Said Florin: “It so clearly was an inside job with the Board of Medicine on the thing to try and send a message to doctors not to testify against other doctors.”
Dellerson agreed, saying he “walked into a trap” when he appeared before the medical board without an attorney to represent him. He bristles at the accusation that he defrauded his fellow physicians.
“I was the poster boy of ‘Thou shalt not testify against another Florida doctor,’” Dellerson said of the medical board’s action. “That was crazy for me. ... I was at the forefront of tort reform and getting rid of doctors who were testifying just to get paid.
“I had an excellent reputation,” he said, “that has been destroyed.”