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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. So that none are misinformed by my posting wihtout a non de plume here, please allow me to state that I am NOT an Indiana licensed attorney, although I am an Indiana resident approved to practice law and represent clients in Indiana's fed court of Nth Dist and before the 7th circuit. I remain licensed in KS, since 1996, no discipline. This must be clarified since the IN court records will reveal that I did sit for and pass the Indiana bar last February. Yet be not confused by the fact that I was so allowed to be tested .... I am not, to be clear in the service of my duty to be absolutely candid about this, I AM NOT a member of the Indiana bar, and might never be so licensed given my unrepented from errors of thought documented in this opinion, at fn2, which likely supports Mr Smith's initial post in this thread: http://caselaw.findlaw.com/us-7th-circuit/1592921.html

  2. When I served the State of Kansas as Deputy AG over Consumer Protection & Antitrust for four years, supervising 20 special agents and assistant attorneys general (back before the IBLE denied me the right to practice law in Indiana for not having the right stuff and pretty much crushed my legal career) we had a saying around the office: Resist the lure of the ring!!! It was a take off on Tolkiem, the idea that absolute power (I signed investigative subpoenas as a judge would in many other contexts, no need to show probable cause)could corrupt absolutely. We feared that we would overreach constitutional limits if not reminded, over and over, to be mindful to not do so. Our approach in so challenging one another was Madisonian, as the following quotes from the Father of our Constitution reveal: The essence of Government is power; and power, lodged as it must be in human hands, will ever be liable to abuse. We are right to take alarm at the first experiment upon our liberties. I believe there are more instances of the abridgement of freedom of the people by gradual and silent encroachments by those in power than by violent and sudden usurpations. Liberty may be endangered by the abuse of liberty, but also by the abuse of power. All men having power ought to be mistrusted. -- James Madison, Federalist Papers and other sources: http://www.constitution.org/jm/jm_quotes.htm RESIST THE LURE OF THE RING ALL YE WITH POLITICAL OR JUDICIAL POWER!

  3. My dear Mr Smith, I respect your opinions and much enjoy your posts here. We do differ on our view of the benefits and viability of the American Experiment in Ordered Liberty. While I do agree that it could be better, and that your points in criticism are well taken, Utopia does indeed mean nowhere. I think Madison, Jefferson, Adams and company got it about as good as it gets in a fallen post-Enlightenment social order. That said, a constitution only protects the citizens if it is followed. We currently have a bevy of public officials and judicial agents who believe that their subjectivism, their personal ideology, their elitist fears and concerns and cause celebs trump the constitutions of our forefathers. This is most troubling. More to follow in the next post on that subject.

  4. Yep I am not Bryan Brown. Bryan you appear to be a bigger believer in the Constitution than I am. Were I still a big believer then I might be using my real name like you. Personally, I am no longer a fan of secularism. I favor the confessional state. In religious mattes, it seems to me that social diversity is chaos and conflict, while uniformity is order and peace.... secularism has been imposed by America on other nations now by force and that has not exactly worked out very well.... I think the American historical experiment with disestablishmentarianism is withering on the vine before our eyes..... Since I do not know if that is OK for an officially licensed lawyer to say, I keep the nom de plume.

  5. I am compelled to announce that I am not posting under any Smith monikers here. That said, the post below does have a certain ring to it that sounds familiar to me: http://www.catholicnewworld.com/cnwonline/2014/0907/cardinal.aspx

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