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Woodbury hospital sued by former employee amid cover-up allegations

A former Woodwinds Health Campus employee is accusing the hospital of destroying important documents that would potentially hurt the hospital's reputation.

The allegations are spelled out in a federal lawsuit filed by Barbara Peterson, who alleges hospital officials covered up incidents that may lead to negligence or personal injury claims. The allegations include one that accuses an OB-GYN doctor of being under the influence of alcohol while delivering a baby.

Peterson, a Hennepin County resident, also claims the hospital's actions led her to attempt suicide on two occasions as a result of "significant psychiatric issues" including depression and post-traumatic stress disorder.

Officials from Woodwinds' parent organization, HealthEast Care System, denied all allegations in the lawsuit.

Both parties agree, however, that Peterson was a patient advocate from 2003 to 2010, who was responsible for taking patient grievances regarding care they received in the hospital or after they were discharged.

Peterson's responsibilities included investigating grievances, maintaining records of investigations and working with the patient or patient's family with respect to their concerns.

As part of her duties, she had drafted letters to send to patients who had made complaints outlining results of investigations.

Woodwinds officials deny Peterson's claim that in the second half of 2009 she was instructed by her supervisor to "remove and destroy any medical related correspondence with patients/families that could become discoverable during any potential medical negligence or personal injury claim" against the hospital, according to court documents.

Peterson said she refused to destroy records or make separate files of cases that would hurt the hospital's reputation, according to the lawsuit.

HealthEast Care Systems declined to comment on the lawsuit or the process it uses to file or keep patient complaints. But the organization released a statement in response to the pending litigation.

"We have conducted a thorough investigation and determined clearly that Ms. Peterson was never asked to destroy patient grievance records," according to the statement. "The investigation also confirmed that no patient grievance records were destroyed."

But the court file goes on to explain that Peterson received a complaint in 2010 from a first-time mother expressing concern about the behavior of her OB-GYN specialist who had performed her delivery.

Peterson, during the course of her investigation, learned that the doctor who delivered the baby that evening was "inebriated and smelled of alcohol."

Peterson also alleges that she was advised by her superiors that her investigation into the matter should not be documented or shared with the complaining patient.

As a result of the hospital's actions, Peterson's mental health conditions deteriorated "to the point that she attempted suicide on Feb. 22, 2010," the lawsuit states.

She was then placed on medical leave of absence under the Family Medical Leave Act and was told that a new position would be created for her upon her return, according to court documents.

During the time she was on leave, she communicated with Woodwinds' administration and asked if she could work under the emergency room medical director to handle many of the complaints that arose out of patients in the ER, the court documents state.

But Woodwinds officials say the option to work in the ER was never brought up during those conversations, and Peterson was advised to look for a different job outside of Woodwinds.

As a result, Peterson claims she was then forced to apply for long-term disability which caused an exacerbation of her symptoms and "another suicide attempt on May 24, 2010."

Woodwinds officials say Peterson's employment ended in June 2010.

The pending lawsuit alleges violations of the Family Medical Leave Act, destruction of documents, violation of public policy and negligent infliction of emotional distress. Peterson is seeking monetary damages.

Riham Feshir
Riham Feshir is a reporter and photographer for the Woodbury Bulletin. Her coverage includes Woodbury City Hall, Washington County Board of Commissioners and business news.  Follow Riham on Twitter @RihamFeshir for the latest updates.