Scott Plantz remembers the exact date he received notice he was being sued for medical malpractice.
His wife, Cynna, gave birth to their only child that day in 2009.
They had spent five years and more than $100,000 on in vitro fertilizations to have Huntly. It was a special moment for her.
As she was lying in a hospital bed tenderly holding their newborn son, Plantz’s mind "was a thousand miles away," he said. He couldn’t focus on anything but the suit.
"I needed him there," she said. "And he wasn’t."
Even now, his mind flashes to the legal papers, to the accusation that he was responsible for a woman’s death.
Plantz’s insurer encouraged him to settle the suit for $50,000, which it would have paid, and move on. But he would have to admit he failed to properly treat his patient.
Convinced he had done nothing wrong, Plantz refused on principle. The decision bloomed into a decade-long obsession.
It would cost him his life savings, threaten his relationships with his wife and son, and consume every waking moment of his life.
• • •
Plantz, now 58, was not long out of residency, practicing as an emergency room doctor in Texas in the 1990s, when he was served with his first malpractice suit.
In that case, a patient of his refused to be admitted to the hospital and later died, Plantz said. His insurance company settled, and he’s regretted it ever since.
"For 20 years, every form I filled out, everything I did, I had to tell people I committed malpractice," he said. "That is the worst thing you can possibly do to a physician."
He couldn’t let that happen twice. Especially because he felt the new suit was a sham, an attempt to shake him down for money.
Two years before the latest suit, a patient named Vineshia Malcolm visited the emergency room at St. Anthony’s Hospital, where Plantz was the attending physician. She was coughing, congested and wheezing. A CT scan revealed a mass in her neck, which he said medical records indicated was a chronically enlarged thyroid, a goiter.
Plantz determined the goiter wasn’t an immediate threat. He prescribed Malcolm antibiotics for pneumonia and sent her home.
Twelve hours later, Malcolm’s husband found her dead.
An autopsy said the Walmart worker died from the goiter compressing her windpipe. She was 60.
The lawsuit by her husband, Edward John, blamed Plantz.
Plantz had never heard of that type of goiter killing someone suddenly.
"I knew I wasn’t guilty of malpractice, and I knew I was going to have to prove that I was right."
A lawyer friend estimated he could lose up to $400,000 if he challenged the case, roughly the cost of his home, even if he won. He made good money as a doctor and he and his wife owned a pair of urgent care clinics. He figured he could cut down on legal expenses by doing his own research.
So he dismissed his insurance company and hired his own lawyer.
It was worth the risk, he said, "for my name."
• • •
In Florida, lawyers who want to sue doctors must first find another physician to substantiate the claim. To be an expert in an emergency room malpractice case, the law requires substantial professional experience providing emergency medical treatment within the last five years. It’s a bar the Legislature makes lawyers meet to discourage frivolous lawsuits.
In the case against Plantz, the expert was Richard Dellerson.
Now 79 and from Broward County, Dellerson appeared to check all the boxes. He was a former director of emergency medicine at Memorial Regional Hospital in Hollywood. He was more recently the administrator of Miami Children’s Hospital and medical director for two fire departments.
He also had a long history of serving as an expert in malpractice cases, having offered his opinion in about 300, he told the Tampa Bay Times. Most, he said, were on behalf of accused doctors. He only started testifying against physicians after lawyers began criticizing him as a "hired gun," he said.
In a sworn statement, Dellerson blamed Plantz for failing to investigate the mass in Malcolm’s neck. He accused Plantz of "reckless conduct" that contributed to her death.
A line in the statement jumped out at Plantz. In describing his qualifications to provide an opinion, Dellerson claimed to be experienced in diagnosing and treating "acute neurologic conditions." But the thyroid has nothing to do with the nervous system.
Plantz dug into Dellerson’s past and found that he hadn’t worked as an emergency room physician in eight years. His curriculum vitae was out of date. His Advanced Trauma Life Support certification had lapsed.
And to Plantz’s dismay, Dellerson would later acknowledge that he had rendered his conclusion about Malcolm’s death after reviewing a portion of her medical records for just 20 or 30 minutes.
"That’s how long it took for him to ruin my life," Plantz said.
Dellerson agreed that might appear to be a short time. But, he said, the evidence was plain.
"He’s a highly capable physician, but he blew it," Dellerson said by phone. "We all make mistakes. That’s why God created malpractice insurance, I guess."
In September 2009, Plantz moved to have Dellerson disqualified and the malpractice case against him dismissed.
• • •
By the time Plantz saw Dellerson at a 2011 deposition, he was already growing frustrated by the lack of progress. What happened afterward would cost him more time — and fuel a bitter clash with the attorney suing him, Wil Florin.
After his testimony, Dellerson wrote in a sworn statement that Plantz approached him with his arm extended as though for a handshake. In court filings, Florin claimed Plantz punched Dellerson in the stomach and that his own attorney had to separate the two doctors.
Plantz denied that, but admitted pushing Dellerson away. He testified that Dellerson provoked him, saying: "You know, Dr. Plantz, I am sorry. I have to take these cases — these plaintiffs’ cases against bad doctors, otherwise they call me a defense whore."
Dellerson told the Times he doesn’t recall exchanging words with Plantz before the altercation.
A veteran of hard-fought cases, Florin’s clients have included a radio shock jock who sued another for defamation, a former University of South Florida football coach accused of grabbing a player’s throat and famed wrestler Hulk Hogan.
Florin sought court sanctions against Plantz, and not just for the tussle.
In court papers, he claimed that in a meeting Plantz held on to him longer than normal during a handshake and squeezed hard in a "death grip." Plantz’s own attorney told the judge that Plantz said he wanted to end the lawsuit by "putting a bullet through Wil Florin’s head."
Florin accused Plantz of witness tampering for filing a lawsuit claiming fraud against Dellerson and offering to withdraw it if Dellerson changed his testimony in the malpractice case. And he said Plantz wore a bloody overcoat to a deposition, saying he was trying to strike "fear and intimidation."
Plantz testified he did make the threat against Florin, but said in a deposition he did so "in a joking manner." In later testimony, he said he was upset.
"I know that I escalated in an inappropriate manner," he said. "I said something off the cuff and wrong."
He told the Times that the rest of the allegations were a delay tactic meant to bury Plantz under legal bills.
A judge ultimately agreed sanctions against Plantz were unwarranted. But not until four years later.
• • •
Outside the courtroom, Plantz tried to ruin the man he felt was trying to do the same to him.
He filed a complaint with the Florida Board of Medicine, which licenses and regulates physicians. It claimed Dellerson had repeatedly misrepresented his qualifications as an expert witness in legal cases and lied in previous testimony.
At a hearing in front of the Board of Medicine, Dellerson called the errors "an oversight." But the Department of Health found reason to believe Dellerson had misrepresented his credential in two previous cases, though not Plantz’s.
The board members expressed outrage at Dellerson during the 2013 hearing. They voted unanimously to revoke Dellerson’s medical license.
"I clearly feel — this is pretty egregious in my mind," said board member Dr. James Orr, according to a transcript of the hearing. "If one does not tell (the) truth about their qualifications, one must question whether there’s any truth whatsoever in any of the testimony."
But they also cautioned Plantz. Happy to have an audience to lay out his indictment of Dellerson, Plantz repeatedly strayed from the subject of the hearing during his testimony to the board.
He accused Dellerson of demonstrating "a pattern of false statements" about his board certifications going all the way back to the ’80s. He also brought up Dellerson’s 1999 arrest for driving under the influence.
"Right now you are continuously going outside of the record in this case, and if you continue to do that, you’re putting the outcome of this case in peril," board counsel Ed Tellechea warned Plantz.
Tellechea said that could make the board’s decision vulnerable to appeal.
Dellerson did appeal. Records show the board agreed to settle with him. He was formally reprimanded, ordered to pay $17,500 in fines and fees and barred from testifying as an expert witness in any future cases.
But he got to keep his medical license.
• • •
Plantz’s son Huntly walked into his father’s home office one day, past the "Do Not Disturb" sign hung on the door like it was a hotel room. The toddler held a small plastic ball and asked to play with his father, who was behind his computer working on the case.
"No, I can’t play with you," Plantz said.
Instead, Plantz took a picture. It serves as the background photo of his phone, a reminder to Plantz of what he’s given up.
Plantz had revered his own dad, a farmer and entrepreneur who helped steer him toward a career in medicine rather than law.
In addition to his work in the emergency room, Plantz taught, wrote and edited textbooks, opened his clinics and created eMedicine, a web-based medical database bought by online giant WebMD. What he had long wanted, though, was to be a father.
But as delays stacked up in the court case, Plantz missed watching his son learn to dog-paddle, play mini-golf and hunt at the pumpkin patch.
Cynna, now 49, diligently documented Huntly’s childhood, compiling a digital scrapbook notable for Plantz’s absence. In one 13-second video, Huntly appears in a choo-choo train sweatshirt and earmuffs that look like wheels. He’s at a monster truck rally at a football stadium.
"Daddy had to work," Cynna is heard saying as she pans to the field.
Plantz inundated the courts with paperwork, arguing that his treatment of the patient was up to par and that Dellerson wasn’t qualified to be an expert witness.
"I never knew which (strategy) was going to be persuasive," he said.
The case file ballooned to more than 15,000 pages. Plantz made hard copies of every page, an entire wall of his garage lined with legal boxes, with more in storage.
His devotion to the case seeded a deep hatred of Cats in the Cradle, Harry Chapin’s song about an absent father eventually dismissed by his own son.
"It reminds me of me," he said.
• • •
Plantz estimates he has poured about 18,000 hours into the case, the equivalent of more than a full-time job since 2011.
Cynna, who worked in pharmaceutical sales before Huntly was born, says she is proud of her husband. But she has grown frustrated with his inability to compartmentalize.
Once, the family was on vacation in a cabin, and Plantz was on the phone for three hours.
"If you don’t get off that phone," his wife said, "when we get home, we’re going to separate."
He called a cab, leaving her to pack up the cabin with Huntly and their dogs.
Another time, Plantz dragged her along to knock on a door. He wanted to talk to the police officer who investigated his patient’s death, so they went to her house.
"He made me go and I didn’t want to go," she said.
At Tropicana Field, he fell asleep during a family outing at a Tampa Bay Rays playoff game.
The couple lost friends, and she gave up on inviting people to their Treasure Island condo. Plantz would just sit in front of his computer.
He dug up dozens of old depositions of Dellerson testifying in past cases, looking specifically for inconsistent statements Dellerson made about his work experience. Plantz filed more than 5,000 pages of Dellerson transcripts into the court file. From those, he made "lie lists," spreadsheets hundreds of items long that he said showed Dellerson making false statements while testifying, sometimes in Florin’s cases.
When he wasn’t working on the case, Plantz took on extra emergency room work, sometimes flying back to Texas for shifts there to help pay his legal expenses.
His inability to step away from the case and make time for his family weighed on his wife.
"We’ve lost intimacy," Cynna said. "I’m not attracted to him, because he’s so angry all the time."
The legal bills mounted, adding to the strain. One month, he said, the fees reached into the six figures. The fights over money have left Plantz feeling inadequate, Cynna said, not good enough for her. She’s almost left him twice.
By 2013, Plantz was desperate. He begged a judge, in a court filing, to expose what he called "chronic dishonest behavior" on the parts of Florin and Dellerson.
"OUR FAMILY sacrificed," Plantz wrote, "so that YOU WOULD LEARN THE TRUTH," he wrote.
• • •
The debilitating headaches started a few years earlier, around 2010. "Ten out of 10," Plantz described them.
It took awhile for a diagnosis: arachnoid cysts, little bubbles filled with fluid along his spine. When they leaked, Plantz would be bedridden for weeks, lying horizontal to help them drain.
A separate condition caused a burning sensation in his hands and feet.
By 2014, Plantz had to retire from practicing medicine.
He had once courted Cynna over a long bike ride. Now, he often walks with a cane.
"Not sexy," Cynna teases.
The spinal condition is degenerative. Each time one of the cysts ruptures — about once a year — his brain sinks toward his spinal canal. Eventually, Plantz knows, it will kill him.
Repeatedly, Cynna pleaded with her husband to settle the lawsuit. Instead, they sold the clinics to keep up with legal expenses.
• • •
By 2016, Plantz had shifted his attention toward Florin, the attorney who sued him.
He accused Florin in court of filing endless motions to delay a resolution. Florin blamed Plantz, who he said went through three attorneys and tried to have two judges removed from the case.
Plantz reached out to several prominent lawyers, asking if they would review the case and sign statements saying Florin acted in bad faith when he filed suit against Plantz.
Tampa legal giant Barry Cohen told Plantz he wouldn’t sign anything, but he’d do him one better: He’d take his case.
Cohen’s highlight reel included successfully defending the Aisenbergs, a Valrico couple who faced federal charges of conspiracy and making false statements in connection to the disappearance of their 5-month-old daughter, Sabrina, in a case that drew national headlines. He once helped young teacher Jennifer Porter, who killed two kids in a hit-and-run accident, avoid jail.
He believed it was Plantz who was being bullied.
But what really seduced Cohen was revenge. In 2012, Florin had represented a former employee of Cohen’s in a sexual harassment and breach of contract case.
"Karma is hell," Cohen said. "Because he did something which was very unfair to me. So tit for tat."
It would be one of Cohen’s last cases before his death Sept. 22 following a battle with leukemia.
• • •
When Cohen got the case file, it was in shambles. There were so many experts, depositions and affidavits that discerning the truth was nearly impossible.
His first priority was boiling years of arguments into something Circuit Judge Patricia Muscarella could digest.
Armed with a clear narrative, Cohen convinced Muscarella to hear Plantz’s original 2009 motion to dismiss the case based on Dellerson’s qualifications.
Plantz and Cohen asked the judge for two days to present their case. She gave each side 90 minutes in February 2017.
Cohen went first, flying through the pertinent points.
Florin’s team argued that there only needed to be a "reasonable basis" that malpractice occurred to move a case toward trial. His colleague, Eric Czelusta, said Dellerson’s three-decade career, plus his training and education, made him more than qualified to offer his opinion. Czelusta also argued the judge could use her discretion and rule Dellerson eligible based on his extensive career as a doctor and expert witness.
The ruling came that summer.
Plantz and his wife got an automated email on his phone that the judge had entered a document. The title said it all:
"ORDER GRANTING DEFENDANT’S MOTION TO DISMISS CASE; FINAL JUDGMENT FOR DEFENDANT."
Muscarella had agreed with Plantz. Dellerson wasn’t qualified, she ruled, because his last emergency room shift was in 2001, outside the five-year requirement. And since the Florin firm didn’t put forth another qualified expert, she dismissed the case with prejudice, meaning it can’t be filed again. She attributed the error to "human failure" and expressed sympathy for the widower, who now can’t have his day in court.
For Plantz, the ruling was vindication. "We were elated," Plantz said. "We thought this was closure, finally. After 10 painful years of dealing with this crap."
• • •
Plantz’s elation soon gave way to regret.
It took so long to get there. He estimates he has spent more than $1 million fighting the suit. He and his wife were nearly forced to sell their home. It placed irreparable strain on their marriage. And he can no longer practice medicine anyway.
It also stole precious years of fatherhood.
A recent dad-son weekend to Orlando was derailed when Huntly, now 9, wouldn’t go alone with his father. The boy relented only after his mother agreed to come along.
"It’s a sad waste of my life," Plantz said. "I should have paid him the $50,000."
And it’s still not over. Florin appealed the judge’s ruling to the Second District Court of Appeal. The appeals court has not yet made a ruling.
In his only statement to the Times, Florin maintained that Dellerson is qualified to offer an opinion in this malpractice claim. Florin declined to comment further, saying it would be inappropriate while the appeal is pending and with oral arguments scheduled for next month.
Reached at his home, Malcolm’s widower, Edward John, declined comment. A woman who was with him said Florin told them not to speak about the lawsuit.
Dellerson said recently that he could have withdrawn his opinion in Plantz’s malpractice case and walked away rather than suffer through the ordeal. He said that would be "a coward’s way out."
"That was my opinion," he said. "And I’m not going to change that.
"And to this day I think it was valid."
Plantz believes Florin and Dellerson’s actions amount to fraud. Before his death, Cohen filed a motion in the lower court seeking reimbursement for Plantz’s legal fees. Plantz said he also plans to sue Florin for malicious prosecution.
For any hope of recouping some of his legal bills, Plantz said he must keep fighting.
If Florin wins his appeal, the malpractice claim against Plantz would move toward trial. There, Plantz could lose everything he has left.
After the judge made her ruling, five other medical professionals who settled with the Florin firm over malpractice claims came forward to Plantz and Cohen saying they would like to contest their settlements. All five cases hinged on opinions written by Dellerson.
Plantz contends those doctors are counting on him.
He’s no longer just trying to clear his name.
Times researcher Caryn Baird contributed to this report. Contact Josh Solomon at (813) 909-4613 or [email protected] Follow @ByJoshSolomon.