50 Shades of Malpractice

Mark Crane


February 27, 2017

In This Article

Failure to Refer; Overseas Escape


In the area's record verdict for a leg amputation, misuse of a special "boot" and failure to refer a patient to a vascular surgeon led a jury in January 2015 to award $3.157 million to a former police lieutenant whose left leg was amputated.

Donald Johnson, 65, who had a history of peripheral vascular disease, was admitted to Rockford Memorial Hospital in August 2010 with dizziness, weakness, and possible upper gastrointestinal bleeding.

General surgeon Dr Mark Zarnke evaluated wounds on Johnson's lower left leg. Despite tests showing the patient had only 41% blood flow to the leg, the surgeon applied an Unna boot—a special gauze bandage—2 days later to treat the wounds. The boot remained on for 5 days, the complaint alleged according to a report in the Rockford Register Star.

When the boot was removed, Johnson's leg showed signs of tissue death requiring amputation below the knee. Johnson's attorneys said using the boot was negligent because of the decreased blood flow in the leg. They argued that Dr Zarnke didn't offer surgical options to restore blood flow and never consulted a vascular surgeon.


Escape overseas to avoid malpractice charges? This doctor tried it after a staggering number of malpractice charges; his notorious exploits subsequently gained national attention.

More than 350 patients filed malpractice suits against former Dr Mark Weinberger, whom they accused of performing unnecessary operations. The otolaryngologist, who billed himself as "The Nose Doctor," disappeared in 2004 while vacationing in Greece. He was on the run for 5 years, having left his wife saddled with about $6 million in debts.

Weinberger was discovered in the Italian Alps in 2009. He pleaded guilty to 22 counts of healthcare fraud and was sentenced to 7 years in prison. He admitted that he sometimes put patients under anesthesia and didn't do anything.

In 2013, the Indiana Patient's Compensation Fund and two law firms reached a $55 million settlement to compensate 282 of the doctor's former patients. They'd accused him of performing outmoded procedures, including drilling holes in patients' sinuses.

Litigation against Dr Weinberger's malpractice insurers is continuing. However, Dr Weinberger was released from prison in January 2015, and a federal judge ruled in April 2015 that he can serve his probation on supervised release in southern Florida, according to a report in IndianaLawyer.com.


Interesting fact: A physician can be found negligent but win the case anyway.

When his longtime patient was several months pregnant in September 2002, the doctor performed a Pap test that showed dysplasia on her cervix. The patient gave birth in December 2002 and didn't contact the doctor until May 2003, when she was again pregnant, according to court documents.

A new Pap test again showed dysplasia of the cervix. Colposcopy performed 6 weeks later revealed severe dysplasia. When the patient returned for a postnatal check, a new Pap test had a normal result. The doctor still urged her to get another colposcopy within 30 days and recommended another Pap test in 6 months.

The patient said she planned to move to another city. He recommended that she schedule the colposcopy with him or seek treatment from another doctor, but he didn't document this advice. He never saw the patient again.

The patient didn't obtain another Pap test at the recommended 6 months. In September 2005, she was diagnosed with cervical cancer that had spread to her lymph nodes, causing complications and the need for a radical hysterectomy.

She sued the physician, alleging he failed to diagnose and treat her condition in a timely matter. The doctor argued that the patient was negligent in failing to follow up with his advice. The jury found that the doctor was negligent, but that the patient was as well. It assigned the patient 51% of the fault and the doctor 49%. Under the comparative negligence rule in Iowa, a judge dismissed the patient's complaint.

The Court of Appeals of Iowa upheld the dismissal, finding substantial evidence that the patient was negligent in failing to obtain follow-up care that would have prevented the development of cervical cancer.


The patient clearly suffered pain—but was it primarily the pain, or the pressure of his own psychiatric problems, that led him to suicide? Two injections for chronic lower back pain caused such severe injuries to a man with a history of psychiatric problems that he committed suicide, his family's lawsuit charged.

Joel Burnette went to a pain clinic in 2009. An epidural steroid injection didn't relieve his pain, but a lump soon appeared at the injection site, according to a report by the Associated Press. He complained about the lump but was told that some swelling was normal. One week later, he was diagnosed with meningitis caused by MRSA infection.

A plaintiff's expert testified that one clinic pain injection caused an infection. The second pain shot passed through the infected area into the spinal cord, causing his meningitis.

The infection caused Burnette to suffer chronically inflamed spinal nerves that left him impotent, incontinent, and in constant pain, the suit charged. He'd filed a malpractice suit against a physician and the pain clinic but took his own life before the case went to trial. His parents charged that medical negligence led to his suicide.

A jury awarded the parents $2.88 million in a trial in 2014. The pain clinic's attorney said that Burnette's history of bipolar disorder and admissions to psychiatric hospitals for depression led to his suicide rather than his medical condition.

The award was reduced to $1.67 million because of a state cap on awards for pain and suffering.


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