NEWS 8 INVESTIGATES
PLANO — A top North Texas hospital is accused of letting a dangerous surgeon operate on patients, causing their paralysis... and even death.
The allegations are laid out in federal lawsuits against Baylor Plano by two patients who say the surgeon should never have been given credentials.
Dr. Christopher Duntsch had billed himself as one of the most accomplished spine surgeons in North Texas. So much so that in July 2011, Baylor Plano agreed to pay him $50,000 a month plus expenses to work exclusively at their hospital.
But according to a lawsuit filed by Dallas attorney Kay Van Wey, Duntsch's previous employer had identified him as "an egomaniac, mentally ill, an alcoholic, drug addict or a combination thereof."
Baylor has yet to file a response in the suit, and generally denies the allegation.
Van Wey said Baylor Plano was warned, but hired Duntsch anyway.
"But after that there were multiple, multiple opportunities for them to stop him," Van Wey told News 8.
Duntsch began his practice at Baylor in July 2011.
Kenneth Fennell of Oak Point said he was one of Duntsch's first victims. He underwent two surgeries. Van Wey says both were unnecessary; the second left Fennell permanently disabled.
In December 2011, Duntsch performed back surgery at Baylor Plano on Lee Passmore. Passmore — who said he lives in constant pain with no hope for relief — is also suing Baylor.
"I haven't been able to walk straight, or run, or anything since that surgery," Passmore said.
During his surgery, according to the suit, an assisting surgeon noticed Duntsch allegedly botching Passmore's operation and had to physically intervene.
"He said, 'Stop doing what you are doing,' because Duntsch was going to damage Lee's spinal cord if he continued," said James Girards, Passmore's attorney. "Duntsch refused to stop."
Girards said the altercation was witnessed by hospital staff but never reported, an allegation that Baylor denies.
One month later, according to the suit, other surgeons described Duntsch as "an impaired physician, a sociopath who must be stopped from practicing medicine."
But no one stopped him from operating on his own roommate and best friend Jerry Summers, who could walk the day before the operation at Baylor.
The day after his surgery, he was a quadriplegic.
"It was supposed to be a pretty common surgery, and I was supposed to walk in one day and walk out the next," Summers said.
According to Fennell's suit, Summers admitted to nursing staff that he had witnessed Duntsch using drugs the night before surgery. The lawsuit alleges an attorney representing Summers called Baylor Plano and "reported the allegations concerning Dr. Duntsch's drug use."
Duntsch’s privileges were suspended, but only for a few weeks.
The suit alleges on his second day back from suspension at Baylor Plano, hospital officials let him operate on Kelly Martin of Garland. Duntsch allegedly botched her surgery.
She died from massive blood loss.
"They should have stripped him of his hospital privileges,” Van Wey said. “They should have reported him to the Texas Medical Board. They should have reported him to the National Practitioner Data Bank."
Instead, after leaving Baylor Plano, Duntsch received temporary privileges to operate at Dallas Medical Center. The suit alleges "Baylor Plano sent a letter of recommendation for Duntsch to Dallas Medical Center [...] stating there were no adverse events or adverse issues associated with Duntsch."
"I had no negative reviews or disciplinary actions," Duntsch told News 8 during a phone conversation last summer. "They wrote me a letter saying that I was in good standing the whole time. There was never any discipline, and I was never, ever reviewed."
A Baylor spokesperson told News 8 last year it did not file any formal complaints about Duntsch.
"Generally speaking, since we did not file any complaints against him, he would have been in good standing when he resigned," said Baylor spokesperson Jennifer McDowell.
In a response filed in the Passmore suit, Baylor denies giving Duntsch a letter of recommendation, and denies all of the key allegations being made in the lawsuit.
"The quality of patient care we provide is of paramount importance to us," McDowell said in a prepared statement for the media. "We take all patient care-related claims very seriously."
According to the lawsuit, after Duntsch left Baylor in "good standing," another of his patients — Floella Brown — died of excessive blood loss.
Another patient suing Duntsch, Jeff Glidewell, said the doctor left him partially paralyzed as well.
Victim after victim (or their surviving families) are all making the same or similar claims — that Christopher Duntsch should have been stopped before he was allowed to operate on them.
"They should have suspended his license until they figured out what was going on, but they didn't," Passmore said.
The lawyers suing Baylor say their cases are made difficult by Texas law, which says they can't just prove Baylor was "negligent." Those lawyers have to prove "malice" — essentially having to prove that Baylor meant to harm patients when they let Duntsch operate on them.