Many doctors worry about a single lawsuit.
In Indiana, clinicians and their carriers are responsible for the first $250,000 of a judgment or settlement. Its Patient’s Compensation Fund covers any excess liability up to $1 million.
Dr. Mark Weinberger, a sinus surgeon, was sued by over 300 patients and recently the Indiana Patient’s Compensation Fund wrote checks totaling $63 million. Dr. Weinberger’s carrier added $3 million to the pile.
As eye popping as those numbers are, that’s not the strange part of the story. Dr. Weinberger fled the country in 2004, ditching his third wife and the lifestyle he had built. He had been sued earlier that year by the estate of Phyllis Barnes. She presented to Dr. Weinberger in 2001 complaining of a sore throat, difficulty breathing, coughed up blood, and headaches. Dr. Weinberger diagnosed her with sinus problems, a diagnosis he made on almost every patient that saw him, and performed surgery he was performing on almost every patient that saw him. In court filings, his office was grossing $10 million a year. A judge later described Weinberger’s treatment of patients as ATM machines.
Phyllis Barnes actually had laryngeal cancer. The estate’s attorney sued Weinberger – and ultimately won a verdict t in 2011 for $13 million in compensatory and punitive damages. By the way, punitive damages are almost unheard of in medical malpractice cases.
It’s a saga that was chronicled in Vanity Fair in a piece called The Runaway Doctor.
Weinberger’s ex-wife testified that he was constantly fretting and worrying about this lawsuit. In a deposition, she stated, ”He had bought survival gear. He bought books on how to disappear…He talked to me about moving away and living in a foreign country. It wasn’t until hindsight that I put the facts together.”
In September, 2004, while aboard a yacht off Greek Isles, Weinberger’s wife awoke to find her husband missing from their bed. Someone explained he flew to Paris to buy her diamonds set for her as a gift. “He never came back,” she said.
Over the next 5 years, he remained “invisible.” In 2006, a federal grand jury indicted Weinberger on 22 counts of insurance fraud – billing for procedures that had never been performed. On December 29, 2009, Italian police, who had been tipped off, arrested the doctor as he hid in a tent on a snow covered mountain in the Italian Alps. Weinberger was extradited to the US and placed in prison.
Weinberger pleaded guilty to every count of healthcare fraud. He is serving a seven year sentence. Meanwhile, he has become the model prisoner. He has served as a cook for the 88 inmates in his unit. He tutored fellow inmates to help them earn their GED. He taught a 100 person yoga class. And he led courses on the philosophy of non-violence – an interesting tutorial for a captive audience.
The medical malpractice lawsuits. Patient after patient sued for unnecessary procedures. Weinberger’s practice was close to steel mills and the local air was dirty. Patients came to his office with assorted respiratory complaints. According to his ex-wife,”[Weinberger stated] there’s a lot of sinus disease out there. And Mark would say everyone is insured.”
According to the allegations, Weinberger would perform a CT of the sinuses in his facility, read the scan himself, diagnose a deviated septum, nasal polyps, and other abnormalities that supposedly block mucus drainage and obstruct nasal breathing. In the lawsuits, many of these conditions proved to be fiction. Regardless, Weinberger would invariably recommend an antiquated surgical procedure. There was never any conservative management. When you’re a hammer, everything is a nail. Even a fictional nail.
The Indiana Patient’s Compensation Fund made a giant payment to be distributed to over 300 patients. Only a handful of cases went to jury trial where Weinberger was found liable for negligence. The vast majority of the cases never reached a jury.
For those who did the math, how is it that the Patient’s Compensation Fund wrote a check for more than $60 million and Weinberger’s professional liability carrier wrote a check no larger than $3 million? That’s unclear. Perhaps the policy has a maximum number of claims allowed per year. Or perhaps the carrier denied liability citing its insured, Dr. Weinberger, failed to cooperate with his defense.
Weinberger is scheduled for release from prison in 2016. Quite a fall from grace.