Kibler v. Northern Inyo County

On July 20, 2006 the Supreme Court of California in Kibler v. Northern Inyo County Local Hospital District, (2006) 39 Cal.4th 192, issued a landmark decision holding for the first time that Hospital peer review is protected, under the anti-SLAPP statute, from harassing, premature lawsuits initiated by physicians to disrupt and undermine the peer review process.

FACTS:  On December 13, 2002, Dr. Kibler filed a lawsuit in Inyo Superior Court against Northern Inyo Hospital and several individually named defendants seeking damages on a number of tort theories relating to the exercise of his staff privileges at the Hospital.  This followed disciplinary action by the Hospital’s peer review committee which summarily suspended Dr. Kibler’s privileges a year before and also brought a workplace violence injunction against him  pursuant to Civil Code section 527.8.

In response to Dr. Kibler’s action for damages, the defendants moved to strike the complaint in its entirety based on California’s anti-SLAPP statute, Code of Civil Procedure section 425.16.  Defendants argued that because hospital peer review is mandated by California Business & Professions Code sections 800-809 et seq. and is reviewable by administrative mandamus, it meets the criteria under subsection e(2) of the anti-SLAPP statute for “official proceedings authorized by law” and therefore the first two prongs was met under the statute.

Additionally, the defendants argued that Dr. Kibler could not prove a probability of prevailing on the merits of his case at trial under prong two of the anti-SLAPP statute because he failed to exhaust his internal administrative and external judicial remedies pursuant to Westlake Community Hospital v. Superior Court (1976) 17 Cal.3d 465 and had released any and all claims against the defendants pursuant to a release agreement entered into on January 3, 2002.

The trial court, the Hon. Edward Forstenzer presiding, granted defendants’ anti-SLAPP motion and subsequently awarded them $67,591.70 in attorneys’ fees.  The California Fourth District Court of Appeal, Division One, affirmed the trial court’s decision in full.  Prior to the Supreme Court of California’s ruling on July 20, 2006, the parties entered into a mutual settlement and mutual release of any and all claims whereby Dr. Kibler paid a total of $82,241.00 to the defendants in attorneys’ fees and interest pursuant to the anti-SLAPP statute, in consideration for Dr. Kibler dismissing with prejudice the action pending before the Supreme Court and a second tort action filed by Dr. Kibler as to which the defendants also filed an anti-SLAPP motion.  The Defendants also waived any right to additional attorneys’ fees on appeal pursuant to CCP section 425.16.

Carlo Coppo, the lead attorney on the case in the trial court, with vast experience in defending medical staff litigation, strongly believes that “physicians who voluntarily serve on peer review committees should not have to continually look over their shoulders in fear of premature million dollar lawsuits designed to disrupt the peer review system itself.” On this basis, we successfully argued at the trial court level that the attempt to end these premature lawsuits pursuant to the anti-SLAPP statute was a winning argument, and after getting the deserved close attention from our state’s highest court the Supreme Court agreed.  To learn more about this and other important healthcare issues, please contact our office.

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