Fulton County Daily Report
April 27, 1999
When Dr. Leonard Masters of Jacksonville, Fla., attended Alcoholics Anonymous meetings, he, like the others, would say he was an alcoholic.
Now, however, Masters claims he wasn't telling the truth. He says he was forced to attend the meetings to keep his medical license after being intentionally misdiagnosed as "alcohol dependent" by Talbott Recovery Systems Inc. of Atlanta. He says he was forced to spend nearly four months hospitalized at its treatment center in College Park, and he calls that false imprisonment.
What's more, in a trial that began last week in DeKalb Superior Court, Masters and his lawyers are saying he's not the only physician who's been required to undergo this involuntary treatment or risk losing his license.
Masters and his wife, Linda Masters, sued Talbott
Recovery, its founder, Dr. G. Douglas Talbott, Anchor
Hospital and 13 others, including doctors and
counselors who treated Masters during his
hospitalization and treatment center stay.
Masters v. Talbott, No. 94-14004-3 (DeKalb Super. filed Dec. 21, 1994).
Masters says the misdiagnosis cost him his career and seeks, among other things, to recover lost income from his release in May 1992 until his retirement in July 1994.
The Masterses allege medical malpractice, false imprisonment, breach of fiduciary duty and intentional infliction of emotional distress.
The defendants deny the allegations and say that during the course of his hospitalization Masters admitted concerns about a possible drinking problem and said he drank a fifth of scotch a week, plus four or five glasses of wine a week.
Milton B. Satcher III of Atlanta's Long, Weinberg, Ansley & Wheeler, representing Anchor and Talbott Recovery, told jurors that this is "a case about a gentleman who wanted treatment for a problem and he got treatment for that problem."
But in his opening statement last week, one of Masters' attorneys, Eric S. Block of Jacksonville, said, "No one ever accused him of having a problem with alcohol. Not his friends, not his wife, not his seven children, not his fellow doctors, not his employees, not his employers. No one."
He wound up in treatment, both sides agree, after the late Dr. Roger Goetz, then the director of the Physicians Recovery Network (PRN), a branch of Florida's Department of Professional Regulation, came to his office in 1992 and told him he'd been accused of prescribing too many narcotics to his chronic pain patients.
According to Block, Goetz told Masters that he could either surrender his medical license until he could disprove the allegations or go to Anchor in Atlanta for a 96-hour evaluation. Block said Goetz was a recovering alcoholic who had been treated at the Atlanta facility and who sent many other physicians there.
Masters went to Anchor, but instead of merely being
evaluated, he was "immediately immersed into
treatment," was diagnosed as "alcohol dependent" and
was enrolled in the Talbott recovery program. He was
released four months later, in May 1992, and forced to
sign a five-year continuing care contract, according to
While he was being treated, Masters' employer, the Family Care Partnership, fired him, Block said.
Block told jurors Masters was afraid to leave the program because "if any doctor dared to dispute the team's diagnosis, if they wanted to leave and go home, or even consent to get treatment in their home state," Talbott Recovery personnel "would threaten to report that doctor to his or her state board of medicine ... as being an impaired physician, leaving necessary treatment against medical advice."
Kimberly L. Woodland of Love & Willingham in Atlanta, representing Talbott and the other physician-defendants, told jurors Masters' scar "is self-inflicted."
Masters told the defendants, through his words and through filling out questionnaires, "about his alcohol problem and his concerns that he was an alcoholic," she added. "And he agreed to get treatment."
Masters told employees that he had suffered
blackouts and had discussed his drinking with his
wife, Woodland said.
On a questionnaire, Master checked "yes" when asked whether he thought alcohol had had a negative impact on his life, according to Woodland.
She added evidence will be introduced that when Masters later applied for disability benefits, he stated that his disability was alcoholism.
Woodland told jurors the defense would offer evidence that other doctors have requested a discharge from Talbott before completing their treatment, have left and haven't lost their medical licenses, she said.
But Block said in his opening statement that Masters told Talbott employees he regularly had "a few" drinks while watching television and eating peanuts, Block said. He also told them he kept a bottle of scotch at the office and had a drink at the end of the day while working on insurance forms, Block added.
Masters "did the best he could to tell them what they wanted to hear, even if he had to exaggerate," Block said.
After his release, Masters got part-time work, but
never approached the $160,000 salary he was making at
the time he left for Atlanta, Block added.
Woodland told jurors that Masters was eventually rehired by his practice group.
Testifying Monday for the plaintiffs, a witness
identified only as an emergency room physician in
Florida said he went to Anchor in 1994 after the PRN
told him that co-workers had complained of smelling
alcohol on his breath.
He was told he must either disprove allegations of a drinking problem or go to Anchor and enter the Talbott program. Once there, staff members told him he could not leave without his license being suspended. "So I stayed," said the witness. "I didn't feel like I had a choice."
On cross-examination, however, the witness
acknowledged he had been in drug treatment and had been
accused of taking narcotics from his workplace when the
PRN called him. And while he insists he had no
addiction when he was admitted, he testified that he
benefited from his time in the program.
The witness was allowed to testify without identifying himself to avoid violating his confidentiality as a patient. But both sides know his identity.
As for Masters, the plaintiffs' first assault on the "alcohol dependent" diagnosis came last week with the expert witness testimony of Dr. Anne Geller, retired head of the Smithers Institute in New York City, who said the diagnosis "deviated" from the standard of care.
She examined Masters' records from Anchor and Talbott and testified she saw "no evidence of loss of control."
Geller admitted Masters was at the time "a chronic heavy drinker" who was consuming "more than is medically recommended" but added "there's no evidence he increased his drinking" and no mention of withdrawal symptoms in the records.
On cross-examination by Woodland, Geller said she disagrees with the Talbott system because "it keeps people for too long." But she also mentioned her objection to the center was not a "blanket" one: "There are many good things they do and many successes."
The plaintiffs last week also put up eight witnesses -- family, friends, patients, office workers and a former colleague -- who testified they never knew Masters to have a problem with alcohol.
But on cross-examination, all of the witnesses acknowledged they had not seen Masters at home on a nightly basis.
One of the eight was Warren Childers, a patient of Masters' who also served as his mentor in Alcoholics Anonymous meetings following Masters' release.
As a recovering alcoholic for more than 25 years, Childers testified he was particularly sensitive to signs of alcoholism.
Childers said he never smelled alcohol on Masters
while in his office and never saw Masters act
inappropriately because of drinking.
Upon learning that Masters was undergoing alcohol treatment in Atlanta, "both my wife and I were shocked ... we had no suspicions at all," he testified.
Childers said Masters was "resentful" about his after-care requirements.
From the moment Masters began attending Alcoholics Anonymous meetings, Childers had doubts that he was really an alcoholic, he said. However, Childers said, he thought it "prudent" for Masters to carry on.
On cross-examination, Childers said he witnessed Masters say he was an alcoholic in Alcoholics Anonymous meetings.
Ethel Miles, Masters' ex-wife to whom he was
married for 26 years, said she never saw Masters
intoxicated or do anything inappropriate while
She also testified that eight of her nine siblings were "bad" alcoholics, so she was familiar with the symptoms.
For the several medical defendants it must have been a weekend of acute discomfort.
A jury Friday had already hit them with a $1.3 million verdict for falsely imprisoning a Jacksonville, Fla., physician in an alcoholism recovery program he maintained he didn't need. On Monday, the same disapproving DeKalb Superior Court jury would get to lay into them for punitive damages.
Come midnight Sunday, after 10 hours of negotiations by plaintiffs' lawyer Eric S. Block's count, the defendants settled with Dr. Leonard Masters and his wife, Linda Masters, for an undisclosed but likely sizable sum. The resolution of the three-week trial was presented to DeKalb Superior Court Judge Clarence F. Seeliger the next morning.
Defense lawyer Milton B. Satcher III of Long, Weinberg, Ansley & Wheeler says the defendants, including five doctors, eight other health professionals and three Atlanta area rehabilitation organizations, were covered by the settlement, but won't say who paid what.
The jury's verdict had already exceeded pre-trial offers on the case, according to plaintiffs' co-counsel Harold P. Corlew of Atlanta. He says he demanded $950,000 before trial. One set of defendants covered by St. Paul Fire & Marine offered $50,000; the others, covered by MAG Mutual Insurance Co., offered nothing.
That latter group included Drs. G. Douglas Talbott and Martha A. Morrison, the two physicians the jury found liable to Masters for fraud. The jury also found that at least one of three doctors affiliated with Georgia Alcohol & Drug Associates-Talbott, Dr. James W. Blevins and Dr. John P. Keppler-misdiagnosed Masters as an alcoholic.
The doctor-vs.-doctor case had another unusual
element to it: a claim of false imprisonment. Family
physician Masters claimed the defendants coerced him
into rehab treatment at the Talbott-Marsh Recovery
Campus in College Park under threat of losing his
medical license. He alleged that the ordeal cost him
Masters v. Talbott, No. 94-14004-3 (DeKalb Super. filed Dec. 21, 1994).
The defense countered with Masters' own words, citing hospital interviews in which he admitted concern that he might have a drinking problem since he drank a fifth of scotch each week, plus four or five glasses of wine.
The jury, after seven hours of deliberation, took Masters' side.
Jury foreman Christopher Brown, 29, an accountant
at The Carter Center, says jurors struggled over the
meaning of "intentional" when considering the fraud
Ultimately, Brown says, "We felt there was [such] an accumulation of mistakes, such as a lack of documentation of diagnosis meetings, that it pushed it to an intentional level."
The jury didn't buy linking all the defendants in a conspiracy, however, Brown says, adding that "Anchor Hospital and the treatment center are good places that have helped many people."
The panel ultimately found that Masters' diagnosis amounted to malpractice. They also found Talbott and Morrison, who is also affiliated with Georgia Alcohol & Drug Associates, liable for fraud in the form of breach of fiduciary duty, and Talbott and Keppler liable for false imprisonment.
The $1.3 million broke down as follows: $538,375 in attorneys' fees, $500,000 for pain and suffering, $227,669 for lost income, $24,435 for medical and/or out-of-pocket expenses and $16,767 to Masters' wife for loss of consortium.
The jury's finding that Talbott and Morrison were agents of Anchor Hospital and Talbott Recovery Systems left those two defendants on the hook for potential punitive damages as well.
The lawyer for Talbott and Georgia Alcohol & Drug Associates, Kimberly L. Woodland of Love & Willingham, says her clients were "respectfully disappointed" with the verdict.
Block, of Jacksonville, says the jury's compensatory verdict validated "what [the plaintiffs have] felt in their heart for years."
Masters testified that a doctor from the Physicians Recovery Network, a branch of Florida's Department of Professional Regulation, told him in 1992 he had been accused of overprescribing narcotics. He could clear himself and keep his license by getting an evaluation at Anchor, Masters said he was told.
Instead, he said, Anchor gave him Alcoholics Anonymous reading material and sent him to a meeting of another alcoholism treatment group, where he broke down.
"I was no longer me," he testified.
Masters admitted he never told doctors he wanted to be discharged and said after his stay he attended AA meetings, during which he identified himself as an alcoholic.
"There was a point in time when I believed I was an alcoholic," he said.
While he was in treatment, his employer, the Family
Care Partnership, fired him, Masters said.
Although he did work again, he said, he never approached his 1991 income of $160,000. He retired in July 1994, he testified.
Juror Brown says the plaintiffs' expert, Dr. Anne Geller, retired head of the Smithers Institute, an addiction treatment facility in New York, was persuasive.
Geller said Masters' diagnosis deviated from the standard of care. The defendant doctors and counselors apparently had neglected an essential element in making that diagnosis, she said: interviewing Masters' family, friends, and colleagues.
Satcher represented Anchor, Talbott Recovery Systems and eight social workers, counselors and doctors who were defendants.
Joseph C. Parker of Downey & Cleveland in Marietta represented Dr. Barry Lubin, who had headed after-care programs for Talbott Recovery patients.