Utah Supreme Court paves way for thousands to seek legal action against cardiologist

A Feb. 18 decision by the Utah Supreme Court means that more than 1,000 patients are free to pursue claims against Salt Lake City cardiologist Sherman Sorensen, who’s been accused of performing hundreds of unnecessary patent foramen ovale (PFO) and atrial septal defect (ASD) closures.

According to the court’s opinion, authored by Associate Chief Justice Thomas Rex Lee, the Utah Supreme Court ruled that a fraud allegation suspended the state’s time limits for medical malpractice, paving the way for countless patients to seek legal action against Sorensen. The case dealt with three separate suits—those of Johannah Bright, Pia Merlo-Schmucker and Lisa Tapp—all of which Sorensen had previously attempted to dismiss.

Bright, Merlo-Schmucker and Tapp were all allegedly treated by Sorensen at Salt Lake City’s St. Mark’s Hospital or Murray’s Intermountain Medical Center between 2008 and 2011, at which point he recommended either PFO or ASD closures for each of them. It’s estimated that around one-quarter of healthy adults have PFO or ASD heart defects, but closure is recommended only rarely, for patients who have experienced recurrent, unexplained strokes as a result of their condition.

Neither Bright, Merlo-Schmucker nor Tapp suffered recurrent strokes or events that would necessitate PFO or ASD closure.

“Sorensen told them the surgeries were necessary to reduce their ‘extreme risk of debilitating stroke’ and that the medical community recommended the procedure for persons in their condition,” Lee’s opinion reads. “The plaintiffs further allege that other physicians raised concerns about Sorensen’s medical practices to IHC and St. Mark’s, complaining that Sorensen was regularly performing unnecessary, invasive cardiac procedures on his patients.”

Between 2002 and 2012, Sorensen held privileges at a handful of Salt Lake City area hospitals, including St. Mark’s and Intermountain Medical Center. During that time, it’s estimated that he performed PFO and ASD closures on around 4,000 patients.

“Bright, Merlo-Schmucker and Tapp join more than a thousand other patients with pending medical malpractice actions against Sorensen and the hospitals where he performed PFO and ASD closures,” Lee wrote. “The claims are similar, and in the cases consolidated before us, substantially the same.”

It’s been around a decade since Bright, Merlo-Schmucker and Tapp underwent their procedures, but, according to the court, they only realized they might have undergone an unnecessary CV intervention once they saw advertising by a medical malpractice attorney in 2017. Sorensen fought back, claiming the plaintiffs sued outside of a two-year limitations period and four-year response period, but the Utah Supreme Court ruled those limitations didn’t apply here.

“We accordingly remand for further proceedings consistent with this opinion,” Lee wrote. “In remanding we are not endorsing the timeliness of plaintiffs’ claims under the ‘fraudulent concealment’ exception. We are simply upholding the plaintiffs’ opportunity to develop and present evidence in support of this exception, through discovery and subject to further motions under applicable rules of civil procedure.”