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COA upholds $300,000 verdict, addresses 'patient abandonment'

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The Indiana Court of Appeals has ruled on the first of hundreds of medical malpractice claims filed against a former ear-nose-throat specialist in Merrillville, upholding a $300,000 jury verdict and also delving into novel legal issues that haven’t been widely addressed by the state’s appellate courts.

A 33-page opinion came Wednesday from the three-judge appellate panel in Mark S. Weinberger, M.D., P.C., Merrillville Center for Advanced Surgery, and Nose and Sinus Center v. William Boyer, No. 45A03-1011-CT-598.

This suit is one of more than 350 malpractice claims have been lodged against Mark Weinberger in state and federal courts, with most encompassing similar accusations: that he allegedly performed unnecessary surgery on people and those procedures either weren’t done or were performed poorly.

All together, the claims represent a pattern of apparent medical malpractice stretching from November 2002 to September 2004. Weinberger successfully ran the Merrillville Center for Advanced Surgery LLC and Nose and Sinus Center LLC, but some concerns about potential malpractice began surfacing toward the end of that period. Court documents allege that everything appears to have caved in when one patient died in September 2004. Days later Weinberger disappeared during a family trip to Greece. Claims from former patients mounted during the next five years and the sinus specialist was featured on “America’s Most Wanted” before being found hiding in a tent in the Italian Alps. He stabbed himself in the neck with a knife before finally being extradited from Italy to the U.S. on federal criminal health care fraud charges in December 2009.

While Weinberger faces hundreds of medical malpractice claims by former patients, he also faces a trial on 22 federal criminal counts of billing fraud and $5.7 million in creditor claims for his past conduct. A trial is set for early next year, after U.S. Judge Philip Simon in the Northern District of Indiana last year rejected Weinberger's plea deal that would have sentenced the former doctor to four years in prison rather than the combined stretch of more than 200 years allowed under federal guidelines.

Attorneys say that 46 medical malpractice cases are pending in Lake Superior Court and more than three dozen are set for trial in the next two years, while more than 200 claims are ongoing before Indiana medical review panels.

In this first civil appeal addressing the underlying medical malpractice and legal claims against Weinberger, the court addressed the case of Gary resident William Boyer, a heavy equipment operator who Weinberger didn’t tell about an irregular heart beat during pre-operative tests to treat what the doctor falsely said were bloody sinuses. Boyer found out about the heart irregularity a year later when his heart was failing. The case went to trial in August 2010 and resulted in a $300,000 jury verdict.

On appeal, the judges found no error in how the trial court denied a motion for change of judge after the original presiding judge had to transfer the case five days before trial because of a family emergency; that the trial court didn’t abuse its discretion in not striking two jurors for cause and for admitting certain evidence and testimony presented by Boyer’s trial counsel.

Most significantly, the appellate court focused on the issue of “patient abandonment” that hasn’t been addressed in Indiana before now. Weinberger argued that abandonment is an independent tort, and out-of-state caselaw says the abandonment must happen at “a critical stage” of the medical care. Boyer said the abandonment is a part of the underlying medical malpractice and exacerbated the malpractice. The appellate judges sided with Boyer and found the abandonment should be evaluated in light of the medical malpractice suit’s standard of care.

“As only a claim for medical malpractice was made and no separate tort claim for patient abandonment was raised, the Weinberger Entities’ motion for judgment on the evidence was not directed at a critical or essential element of the medical malpractice claim but rather at an underlying issue with respect to the standard of care,” Judge Patricia Riley wrote.

The court also held that the trial court properly allowed evidence of Weinberger’s conduct toward other patients and how his flight out of the country was used during trial. The appellate court disagreed that details surrounding Weinberger’s flight only served to vilify him in front of the jury.

 In upholding the $300,000 jury verdict, the appellate court found that the award wasn’t influenced by passion or prejudice and that it wouldn’t be just to compare this case and damages amount to other cases – as Weinberger’s counsel recommended.

“While it may be tempting to engage in a comparative analysis to aid us in the difficult task of evaluating the award at issue in this case, to do so would be a significant departure from Indiana’s historical regard for the uniqueness of every tort claim and the belief that compensatory damage assessments should be individualized and within the province of the factfinder. After reviewing the testimony and evidence presented to the jury it is clear that such a departure is not necessary here.”
 

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  1. Where may I find an attorney working Pro Bono? Many issues with divorce, my Disability, distribution of IRA's, property, money's and pressured into agreement by my attorney. Leaving me far less than 5% of all after 15 years of marriage. No money to appeal, disabled living on disability income. Attorney's decision brought forward to judge, no evidence ever to finalize divorce. Just 2 weeks ago. Please help.

  2. For the record no one could answer the equal protection / substantive due process challenge I issued in the first post below. The lawless and accountable only to power bureaucrats never did either. All who interface with the Indiana law examiners or JLAP be warned.

  3. Hi there I really need help with getting my old divorce case back into court - I am still paying support on a 24 year old who has not been in school since age 16 - now living independent. My visitation with my 14 year old has never been modified; however, when convenient for her I can have him... I am paying past balance from over due support, yet earn several thousand dollars less. I would contact my original attorney but he basically molest me multiple times in Indy when I would visit.. Todd Woodmansee - I had just came out and had know idea what to do... I have heard he no longer practices. Please help1

  4. Yes diversity is so very important. With justice Rucker off ... the court is too white. Still too male. No Hispanic justice. No LGBT justice. And there are other checkboxes missing as well. This will not do. I say hold the seat until a physically handicapped Black Lesbian of Hispanic heritage and eastern religious creed with bipolar issues can be located. Perhaps an international search, with a preference for third world candidates, is indicated. A non English speaker would surely increase our diversity quotient!!!

  5. First, I want to thank Justice Rucker for his many years of public service, not just at the appellate court level for over 25 years, but also when he served the people of Lake County as a Deputy Prosecutor, City Attorney for Gary, IN, and in private practice in a smaller, highly diverse community with a history of serious economic challenges, ethnic tensions, and recently publicized but apparently long-standing environmental health risks to some of its poorest residents. Congratulations for having the dedication & courage to practice law in areas many in our state might have considered too dangerous or too poor at different points in time. It was also courageous to step into a prominent and highly visible position of public service & respect in the early 1990's, remaining in a position that left you open to state-wide public scrutiny (without any glitches) for over 25 years. Yes, Hoosiers of all backgrounds can take pride in your many years of public service. But people of color who watched your ascent to the highest levels of state government no doubt felt even more as you transcended some real & perhaps some perceived social, economic, academic and professional barriers. You were living proof that, with hard work, dedication & a spirit of public service, a person who shared their same skin tone or came from the same county they grew up in could achieve great success. At the same time, perhaps unknowingly, you helped fellow members of the judiciary, court staff, litigants and the public better understand that differences that are only skin-deep neither define nor limit a person's character, abilities or prospects in life. You also helped others appreciate that people of different races & backgrounds can live and work together peacefully & productively for the greater good of all. Those are truths that didn't have to be written down in court opinions. Anyone paying attention could see that truth lived out every day you devoted to public service. I believe you have been a "trailblazer" in Indiana's legal community and its judiciary. I also embrace your belief that society's needs can be better served when people in positions of governmental power reflect the many complexions of the population that they serve. Whether through greater understanding across the existing racial spectrum or through the removal of some real and some perceived color-based, hope-crushing barriers to life opportunities & success, movement toward a more reflective representation of the population being governed will lead to greater and uninterrupted respect for laws designed to protect all peoples' rights to life, liberty & the pursuit of happiness. Thanks again for a job well-done & for the inevitable positive impact your service has had - and will continue to have - on countless Hoosiers of all backgrounds & colors.

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