In August, attorneys for famed UPMC surgeon James Luketich, M.D., hastily arranged for a quick audio analysis of a recording of what they believe is an illegally recorded conversation between Luketich and the doctor who prescribed him suboxone.
It’s just an 11-minute recording — the contents of which have never been released to the public because of the dispute — but it is now at the center of a 4-year-old medical malpractice case in Allegheny County Common Pleas court, and Luketich’s attorneys wanted to make sure the analysis was done before a court hearing.
As a result, Texas audio expert Jerry Hatchett was given just six days to analyze the tape, and UPMC’s attorneys told him to focus on just one two-word phrase located about 1 minute and 55 seconds into the tape.
The phrase was altered and “fabricated,” he concluded, possibly with audio from elsewhere on the same tape, a conclusion he supported again when he returned before Judge Philip Ignelzi.
“My opinion [about the phrase] on 1:55 has not changed,” Hatchett told Robert Barnes, an attorney for third-party defendant Jonathan D’Cunha, M.D., on Tuesday, the first of four days scheduled this week to conclude a hearing that already ran for three days in August.
Luketich has accused D’Cunha, along with another doctor, of possibly making the allegedly illegal recording, which Luketich hopes to have ruled unavailable to use in the case.
During questioning of Hatchett via a Zoom connection from Texas, Barnes said that an audio expert, David Smith, hired by the plaintiffs, questions Hatchett’s findings. Those questions include whether there were background voices audible on the recording, and whether an alleged “sharp vertical line” in a spectrogram analysis of the recording truly shows that it was altered.
Whether the recording will be admitted as evidence in the case could be crucial because court documents show that it appears to involve a discussion of Luketich’s use of the drug suboxone.
The medical malpractice case that began this dispute in 2018 was filed by Bernadette Fedorka and her husband, Paul, which says she suffered a bungled lung transplant that same year.
Luketich did not perform Fedorka’s transplant, but court documents allege that he was poorly managing the lung transplant team — partly because of his use of suboxone — and that is what led to her injuries.
Once the recording between Luketich and David Wilson, M.D. — and a related transcript of that recording — became known and were mailed anonymously to various people in Pittsburgh and at West Virginia University, it also became a part of the case because it revealed the bitter dispute between Luketich and two former colleagues, Lara Schaheen, M.D., and D’Cunha.
Smith’s spectrogram analysis — shown on the courtroom screen as a horizontal bar of mostly shades of orange and some yellow — found at least six instances in one section of the recording of “background voices.”
Hatchett countered they could be some nonvoice-related “sounds,” rather than voices.
“Certainly those are some kinds of sounds,” Hatchett testified. “But are they voices? I haven’t had time to exam” Smith’s report because he only received it Tuesday.
But Barnes also raised a possible source for those “voices,” noting that in an answer to questions, UPMC said that on the day the tape was recorded — Feb. 26, 2018 — two other doctors and two observers were allowed to enter the operating room observation room where Luketich and Wilson had their conversation, though not necessarily at the same time they were there.
As for the “sharp vertical line” in the spectrogram at 1 minute and 55 seconds into the record, Barnes asked Hatchett what else could cause such a reaction on a spectrogram.
“Any sudden, abrupt sound could cause a share vertical line,” Hatchett said.
Tuesday’s hearing concluded with a nearly two-hour closed-door hearing as Hatchett further discussed with attorneys his analysis of the two-word phrase where he believes the recording was altered. The hearing continued on Wednesday.