Husband, wife fired by Hopkins win case Jury awards doctors dismissed last year more than $800,000

November 15, 1995|By Kate Shatzkin | Kate Shatzkin,SUN STAFF

A Baltimore jury yesterday found that the Johns Hopkins School of Medicine was unjustified in firing a husband-and-wife team of highly touted pediatric cardiologists who resigned tenured professorships at other universitie to come to Baltimore.

After about two hours of deliberation, the six jurors awarded Drs. Samuel B. Ritter and A. Rebecca Snider about two years' salary each in damages, plus compensation for speaking engagements Snider testified had evaporated since the couple were fired a year ago. The total came to $822,894.

"I hope the verdict will show we have done nothing wrong, and can get back to our lives and practicing pediatric cardiology," said Dr. Snider, her eyes filling with tears as she shook jurors' hands afterward.

University officials testified that they had hoped the couple would restore the luster of a division that had faded since the days of Dr. Helen Taussig, a pioneer in the treatment of so-called "blue babies" in the 1940s.

Instead, faculty members testified that patients were misdiagnosed, business plummeted and communication broke down to such a degree dur-ing the doctors' time at Hopkins that there was no choice but to dismiss them ten months after they started work.

The university further contended that the doctors had not been formally tenured when they were fired, so no reason was needed. The doctors' attorney, Marvin Ellin, said a university committee had approved the tenure, and that the doctors were led to believe permanent appointments were nothing more than a formality.

Jurors seemed to have no question that the doctors had lifetime appointments when they left professorships at Cornell and Duke universities for Hopkins.

Married in 1993, the doctors testified they wanted to work at Hopkins so they could be in the same city.

"They can concentrate now on getting their lives back together," said juror Anita Riley, 27, a communications worker. "Their track record speaks for itself."

Joseph Finnerty, a lawyer for the university, said he was disappointed with the verdict, and would consult with his clients about taking steps to vacate or appeal it.

"The university believes they were justified in the actions they took," Mr. Finnerty said. "It's an interesting legal question whether under these facts, whether as a matter of law that these folks are entitled to tenure."

Mr. Ellin said the case had national implications for agreements made in the highly competitive world of academic recruitment.

During the trial, Mr. Ellin charged that the couple were victims of a campaign of character assassination by Dr. Jean Kan, who now has Dr. Ritter's job as head of pediatric cardiology, and Catherine DeAngelis, vice-dean of the medical school.

Dr. Kan testified that she did not want the job, and simply was concerned, as others were, about problems the doctors were creating in the division.

Dr. DeAngelis said she was just investigating concerns.

The couple testified they had not been able to find comparable jobs at any universities or hospitals since leaving Hopkins, and that queries once enthusiastically returned went completely unanswered after the firing.

During closing arguments, Mr. Finnerty told jurors the couple's letters seeking jobs began by noting that they were "summarily dismissed," and that theirs was a job search "designed to fail."

Mr. Finnerty said the pediatric cardiology division has recovered well from the controversy, bringing on-line an accomplished echocardiographer to take Dr. Snider's place.

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