- The Washington Times - Wednesday, December 15, 2004

The chief of medical staff for Prince George’s Hospital Center has said under sworn testimony that he has tried to ignite a surgical preparation solution on unwitting patients, court records show.

Testifying as an expert witness in a lawsuit in April, Dr. Willie C. Blair said he had tried to “set people on fire” in a deposition for a lawsuit stemming from an accident in which a female patient was burned in an operating room at the Washington Hospital Center in 2002, according to court records and transcripts of his deposition.

“I’ve been trying to set people on fire for the last three months and can’t do it,” Dr. Blair said in his April 30 deposition.

“How did you go about trying to set people on fire?” said plaintiff’s attorney Robert R. Michael.

“I mean, I put the prep on and wait, and put the prep on and go early; do a lot of using the Bovie [an electric surgical device], but I haven’t been able to ignite anybody,” Dr. Blair said.

The Washington Times has obtained a copy of his deposition.

In an interview earlier this week, Dr. Blair denied making the statements and said he never got a chance to make changes to his sworn deposition.

“It’s all hooey. If I had been given an opportunity to change this, it would have been corrected and changed,” he told The Times. “I would never try to set people on fire; it’s simply not true. It’s irresponsible. If I did and somebody burned, that would be the end of me.”

Yesterday, Dr. Blair said he made the statements but described them as “tongue-in-cheek.”

“I didn’t do it, and it didn’t happen,” he said yesterday. “What I was saying was for the lawyers’ consumption.”

“I said it, but it didn’t happen,” he said of his testimony about trying to set patients on fire.

Dr. Blair said he did experiment with trying to ignite a preparation solution, but said no patients were involved. He said he tried to ignite an applicator for the prep solution in a corner of an operating room after surgical procedures had been completed.

A spokesman for Prince George’s Hospital Center yesterday said hospital officials are reviewing the deposition in response to questions from The Times and have spoken with Dr. Blair about his testimony.

Hospital spokesman Bob Howell said officials’ initial reaction, based on that conversation and a perusal of the document, was that Dr. Blair did not conduct the experiments on patients.

“There hasn’t been any sanctioned experiments involving patients,” Mr. Howell said. “Knowing Dr. Blair and seeing how he works and operates, and based on his history at Prince George’s Hospital Center, for him to be doing what he said here would be so out of character.”

Dr. Blair, who also practices at Doctors Community Hospital in Lanham and Suburban Hospital in Bethesda, graduated from Rush Medical College in Chicago in 1974 and became president of medical staff at Prince George’s Hospital Center in Cheverly this year. He has been a vocal supporter of medical-malpractice-insurance reform in the state.

Mr. Howell pointed to a portion of the deposition in which Dr. Blair said he tried to ignite a prep solution with both a Bovie and a cigarette lighter but not on a patient. At that point in Dr. Blair’s testimony, an attorney for the Washington Hospital Center said, “You’re having way too much fun.”

Mr. Howell said that comment suggests that Dr. Blair was speaking “in colloquialisms.”

Nonetheless, he said the hospital plans to look into the matter further.

“We need people to look at this,” he said.

Officials at Doctors Community and Suburban hospitals were not available for comment yesterday.

The lawsuit in which Dr. Blair offered testimony as an expert witness focused on whether an operating-room fire could have been started if a surgical solution had not been allowed to dry completely before a surgeon used a Bovie.

The case has been settled for an undisclosed sum, according to court records.

The court reporting agency that transcribed the April 30 proceeding would not comment specifically on Dr. Blair’s deposition, but company officials said they stand by their work.

“We’re going to stand by what a reporter took down,” said Joe Dimonte, office manager for District-based L.A.D. Reporting & Digital Videography. “What’s there is accurate.”

In addition, other records in the case show that Reporting & Digital Videography provided Dr. Blair an opportunity to review his deposition but he did not do so.

Dr. Blair denied having had the chance to review the document.

“This was just a deposition about operating-room fires,” he said. “I was trying to make the point that I couldn’t light this stuff on fire.”

Dr. Blair suggested that the document is being used by lawyers to silence him because he has become an outspoken advocate for tort reform.

The Times obtained a copy of the deposition from the family of Catherine Reuter, a 75-year-old from Frederick, Md., who filed a lawsuit after she was burned in an operating-room accident at the Washington Hospital Center in 2002. The Times compared its copy of Dr. Blair’s testimony with an official transcript in Mr. Michael’s office. The documents are identical.

Mr. Michael said the court reporter’s record accurately reflects his questioning of Dr. Blair.

“If he’s saying that he only lit the applicator on fire, that’s not what he said then [during the deposition],” Mr. Michael said. “So he either lied under oath about what he did or he did try to light his patients on fire.”

Paul D’Amore, an attorney for Washington Hospital Center, declined to comment.

In the deposition, Mr. D’Amore advised Dr. Blair that he could only change grammatical mistakes to his testimony when he reviewed the document.

“You can’t change your answers,” Mr. D’Amore told Dr. Blair, according to the deposition.

In the deposition, Dr. Blair was asked whether any of his medical licenses in the District, Maryland or Virginia have been suspended “curtailed or acted upon in anyway.”

“Not that I can recall,” he said, later adding that he did not know of any administrative suspensions against him.

“Nothing that I’m aware of,” he testified. “You know, people get cited for moving and not giving their addresses in some places, and late payment of licensing fees and stuff like that.”

Mr. Michael then asked: “As far as your getting a certified letter … or your having been notified by a hospital or a licensing agency or a state administrative agency of some problem of some sort — ”

“No,” Dr. Blair replied.

However, Virginia Board of Medicine records indicate that it sent Dr. Blair in 2001 a certified letter stating that his license had been suspended because of a failure to pay for license renewal.

Medical-ethics experts who reviewed the deposition at the request of The Times said they were hard-pressed to understand, let alone justify, Dr. Blair’s statements.

“I still can’t imagine how someone could justify intentionally trying to set patients on fire,” said Robert M. Veatch, professor of medical ethics at Georgetown University and former director of the Kennedy Institute of Ethics at Georgetown.

“I can’t imagine any possible defense. I suppose he could claim he had reason to believe that he couldn’t hurt people by trying this and was trying to prove his point,” Mr. Veatch said.

“I saw nothing in the transcript of the deposition that could justify attempts to intentionally cause a fire,” he said.

George Annas, a medical ethicist and chairman of the Department of Health Law, Bioethics and Human Rights at Boston University, said no patients would agree to participate in such an experiment.

“I don’t know what was on this guy’s mind,” Mr. Annas said. “There is no patient who would say, ‘Sure, you can light me on fire.’ ”

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