Maine hospital under fire for threatening to sue a teenager who shared patient safety concerns online

A not-for-profit health system in Maine has threatened legal action against a 15-year-old boy for shedding light on alleged patient safety issues in the paediatric ward of one of its hospitals.

Samson Cournane, a student at the University of Maine, started a petition advocating for an investigation into Northern Light Eastern Maine Medical Center last year, claiming conditions at the hospital were unsafe.

Mr Cournane’s mother, Dr Anne Yered, had previously been fired from the hospital after reportedly voicing safety concerns to the hospital’s CEO and president in 2020.

In the petition, Mr Cournane said his mother was threatened by hospital staff after raising concerns, with one hospital manager going so far as to show up in her backyard to confront her. Dr Yered subsequently claimed she was wrongfully terminated.

Mr Cournane then began pushing for an investigation into the hospital, outlining problems in the petition, which was addressed to US Representative Jared Golden. He alleged that the medical director of the paediatric intensive care unit (ICU) — a former colleague of his mother’s — finished just one year of a three-year critical care fellowship, and implied other hospital employees may be scared to come forward with safety concerns.

But the hospital filed a counterclaim — in response to Dr Yered’s wrongful termination suit — accusing Dr Yered of starting the petition under her son’s name. The counterclaim, shared with The Independent, says: “This case is about a physician who was so angry about her termination from employment that she hatched a scheme to get back at her former employer by posting malicious, false, and defamatory statements about a former colleague harming patients on the internet, posing as or ghost writing for her teenage son.”

Northern Light Health, which did not respond to a request for comment, is threatening what’s called a strategic lawsuit against public participation (SLAPP), which are illegal in Maine, Jay Diaz, senior attorney at the Foundation for Individual Rights and Expression (FIRE), told The Independent. “A SLAPP suit is generally thought of as a lawsuit brought by an entity that seeks to drag a speaker into court over their protected speech in order to silence them,” Mr Diaz said. “It’s censorship by lawsuit…They create this power imbalance because you have this entity that’s going to drag you into an expensive court proceeding and put you at risk of financial ruin.”

FIRE sent a demand letter to Northern Light Health on 23 August, requesting that they disavow any intent to sue Mr Cournane for his public advocacy. Northern Light Health was asked to respond by 1 September; Mr Diaz said the company had not replied as of that afternoon.

“Samson is a bright young kid, and just because he’s 15 years old doesn’t mean he can’t form opinions and communicate his opinions to his public officials,” Mr Diaz said. “A large hospital conglomerate, a billion-dollar corporation, is trying to sue a 15-year-old into silence just because he advocated for an investigation and improved patient safety.”

Mr Diaz said Mr Cournane’s patient advocacy work did not start with the online petition he authored. First, Mr Cournane turned to his school to start a petition on campus, but “that was going to be too expensive,” Mr Diaz explained. However, a student counsellor who he spoke with offered to introduce Mr Cournane to hospital staff so he could voice his concerns directly. “Samson didn’t ask for it, but a student counsellor—on his own—connected him to administrators at the hospital,” Mr Diaz explained. “They started up a correspondence where Samson was asking questions and not receiving answers.” Mr Cournane was in contact with the hospital’s head patient safety administrator, but when hospital staff realised they were communicating with a former employee’s son, Mr Diaz said, “They called off all discussion about the issues he was concerned about.” Essentially, he added, Mr Cournane was told by hospital representatives, “We’re not going to talk to you anymore.”

Mr Diaz said that Mr Cournane’s decision to advocate for an investigation into Northern Light Health was not based on his mother’s termination. This was “not just a topic of enormous public importance, but one of significant personal importance to him,” he explained. As a minor, Mr Diaz added, “if [Mr Cournane] got sick, the ambulance would take him straight to that paediatric [unit]. This directly affected him, his friends, and his siblings.”

Mr Cournane, who recently started classes at the University of Maine and was not available for comment, said in a video released by FIRE that he was frustrated by Northern Light Health’s counterclaim stating that his mother was responsible for his advocacy efforts. “I felt very nervous, first of all, because it was something that I wrote,” he said in the video. “And then I felt sort of betrayed because—why are they taking it out on my mom instead of me?”

In the video, Mr Cournane’s father, John Cournane, spoke about his son’s efforts to draw attention to the alleged safety issues outlined in the petition and the subsequent threat of a lawsuit against him. “When he decided to do this and meet with university administration all on his own, I was very impressed,” he said. “I realised he must care about it a lot, that he was willing to go outside his comfort zone and…discuss these issues with people, strangers, he didn’t know.” He went on to say he was concerned about what could happen if a lawsuit is filed. “The threat of a lawsuit has had a tremendous effect on my family,” he said. “From the financial implications of it to the psychological, emotional uncertainties of what’s going to happen — it’s really created a lot of stress about the future of our family.”

Mr Cournane isn’t the only person to have made claims against Northern Light Health: Last year, a federal jury awarded $3m to a former employee of the same hospital Dr Yered worked at who said he was fired due to racial discrimination, according to the Associated Press.

Additionally, a 2022 report from a nonprofit called Patients Rights Advocate found two Northern Light Health hospitals — including the one where Dr Yered used to work —to be noncompliant with price transparency rules.

Mr Cournane said in the FIRE video that he’s hopeful Northern Light Health will reconsider its position. “Instead of threatening me and my mom…we can actually…make our healthcare system better,” he said.