It's Authentic When Linda Hart Says It's Authentic

And when it's not, even acclaimed investigative reporters eat crow

In recent years Hart has worked principally on medical malpractice cases in which she authenticates records -- or exposes fraud. In 1990, for example, she helped a teenage mother win $23 million in a lawsuit against a Melbourne hospital that allegedly had refused to admit her infant, who later suffered brain damage from spinal meningitis. A note on the emergency-room nurse's medical chart indicated that when the mother called the hospital to complain that her infant had a high fever, the nurse told her to admit the child. But Hart searched the hospital's records and obtained another copy of the medical chart. It showed no note from the nurse.

Also in 1990 a Miami woman died of heart failure after a doctor allegedly failed to admit her to a hospital for tests. Two notations in the doctor's records suggested that he had advised her to enter the hospital but that she had refused. Hart examined the doctor's writing using a sophisticated video scanner that employs sensitive filters to detect even slightly different chemical compositions of ink. She concluded that after the woman died the doctor added statements to exonerate himself. "When the only thing that's in a different ink is an exculpatory statement blaming the patient, that becomes very good evidence for a plaintiff's attorney to say, 'Ladies and gentlemen of the jury, this doctor is not like your doctor. Your doctor wouldn't alter a medical record. This one did.'"

In 1995 a Miami woman sued her doctor alleging that he had failed to properly test and treat a malignant lump in her breast. But her medical chart showed no evidence that the tumor had been detected. Hart examined the records using an instrument called an ElectroStatic Detection Apparatus (ESDA), which can reveal faint indentations on sheets of paper. Her conclusion: The physician in fact found the lump during an examination but erroneously diagnosed it as a benign fibroid tumor. Later he allegedly removed that page from the patient's file.

The ESDA, however, re-created the doctor's misdiagnosis by highlighting the indentations his pen had left on the chart's following page. Hart testified in court that the physician had altered the records. During the course of the trial the woman died, but the jury awarded her family six million dollars. "The courtroom is the real test," Hart says. "It's the test of whether you did all the work you were supposed to do and anticipated all of the questions."

Not all of her clients allow her to testify. During a recent Boca Raton dispute over an inheritance, for instance, Hart authenticated the signature on an agreement that assigned the bulk of a man's estate to a female acquaintance. But Hart discovered that the agreement itself was a fake; someone had typed it onto a piece of paper bearing the deceased's true signature.

When Hart produced her report, however, the attorney for the female acquaintance asked that she testify only to the signature's authenticity. She refused. Undaunted, the attorney hired a more acquiescent expert.

Three years later, when the case finally came to trial, the new expert inexplicably carried Hart's report with him to the witness stand. The opposing attorneys discovered it, demanded to read it, and then asked Hart to testify for their clients. "That's what so incredible," she recalls. "Why did he bring it in the courtroom? The lawyers asked him if it was an authentic signature, and he said, 'Yes it is.' He didn't lie, But he didn't tell the truth either."

Not everyone who alters a document and then tries to hide it is a lawbreaker, Hart allows. Some simply make unwise judgments. Her own son recently presented his parents with a wrinkled report card, explaining that someone had pulled it out of his hands and crumpled it. But when his mother studied it closely, she discovered eraser marks over his attendance record. Her son hadn't wanted her to know that he had skipped school. "You think it's a childish prank," she says, "but I had two certified public accountants try the same thing two days ago.

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