Jonathan J. James, a local civil-rights attorney who’s handled many LGBT-related cases, has been sued for legal malpractice in Philadelphia Common Pleas Court.
Dr. Don Walter Kannangara, an infectious-disease specialist, contended James failed to give him adequate legal representation, resulting in the permanent suspension of Kannangara’s staff privileges at two local hospitals.
In a brief interview, Kannangara said his staff privileges at St. Joseph’s Hospital and Girard Medical Center in North Philadelphia were temporarily suspended in February 2007, after he complained about substandard and unsafe conditions at the hospitals.
Kannangara said some personnel at the hospitals failed to practice basic hygiene such as washing their hands with sanitizing lotion prior to treating patients.
He said incorrect lab results for patients resulted in serious medical errors. Additionally, he said, some patients with HIV were neglected and not given their medications. Conversely, unnecessary medical treatments were ordered for other patients, Kannangara told PGN.
The doctor said he notified various oversight agencies about his concerns, including the state Attorney General’s Office, the state Health Department and the Joint Commission on Accreditation of Health Care Organizations, which certifies more than 15,000 healthcare organizations and programs in the U.S.
To his knowledge, no corrective action was taken at the hospitals, he said. “Instead, I was punished for making the complaints,” Kannangara said.
James allegedly failed to provide “prompt and adequate and appropriate professional services,” causing Kannangara to “lose his staff privileges at medical facilities where he practiced for more than 25 years,” according to the lawsuit filed in March.
James allegedly missed two key appeal hearings that might have resulted in the restoration of Kannangara’s staff privileges, according to the lawsuit.
Kannangara was en route to one of the hearings when James allegedly told him, via telephone, that “[Kannangara’s] presence would not help lead to a successful outcome,” according to the lawsuit.
Due to that phone conversation, Kannangara did not attend the hearing, and no defense was presented on his behalf — causing a negative outcome for the doctor, according to the lawsuit.
James had no comment for this story.
Kannangara said he tried on several occasions to stay informed about the progress of his appeals, but James allegedly failed to cooperate with his requests for legal updates, according to the suit.
“[James] ignored pleas for help throughout the suspension process, thereby robbing Dr. Kannangara of an opportunity to regain his hospital privileges and resume his successful practice,” the allegation states. “Dr. Kannangara has been completely prevented from pursuing his chosen profession, due to the wrongful actions of [James].”
Futhermore, Kannangara claimed, when he asked hospital officials about the status of his appeals process, he was referred to James, who didn’t explain the situation.
The lawsuit describes James’ alleged legal malpractice as “breathtaking and intentional neglect of his client.”
Because no defense was presented at the appeal hearings, Kannangara’s staff privileges were permanently suspended at both hospitals, according to the suit.
Officials at both hospitals refuted the allegations Kannangara made against their institutions.
Catherine Kutzler, CEO at St. Joseph’s Hospital, said excellent patient care is provided at the facility.
“We do whatever we have to do to get the care for the patients here,” she said. “I’m very proud of the care. I also know that we take very good care of HIV patients. We’re not 100-percent perfect. But we respond immediately to any complaints.”
Marlene Douglas-Walsh, administrator at Girard Medical Center, echoed those assertions.
“If something occurs that we know about, of course we’re going to fix it,” she said. “We don’t put patients’ lives at risk. The allegations that the doctor came up with were investigated thoroughly and found not to be true. They’re all unfounded. If there was truth to his allegations, would we still be in business?”
Kannangara paid James a $5,000 retainer fee, which was considered non-refundable and never returned to him, according to the lawsuit. The suit also states that James “effectively destroyed Dr. Kannangara’s ability to continue the practice of medicine.”
Kannangara “no longer receives referrals from other doctors at the hospitals, which was the lifeblood of his busy practice,” it continues.
Kannangara also is suing Pre-Paid Legal Services Inc. of Ada, Okla., and a Pittsburgh-based law firm, Welch Gold and Seigel P.C. Both agencies allegedly were instrumental in referring Kannangara to James, according to the suit.
Officials at Pre-Paid Legal Services and Welch Gold and Siegel had no comment for this story.
Kannangara is seeking more than $250,000 in punitive and compensatory damages. His lawsuit lists various counts, including legal malpractice, breach of contract, professional negligence and breach of fiduciary duty.
According to Philadelphia Common Pleas Court documents, all parties have been instructed to be prepared for a jury trial to begin on March 7, 2011.
Tim Cwiek can be reached at (215) 625-8501 ext. 208.