Latest News 2017 June The Most Terrifying Case of Medical Malpractice Ever

The Most Terrifying Case of Medical Malpractice Ever

On February 20th, 2017, Christopher Duntsch was convicted of maiming an elderly woman, who is now confined to a wheelchair. His criminal history includes maiming at least 4 people and killing 2. He was sentenced to life in prison for his crimes, with many of his victims sitting in the room when the jury handed down the verdict. Among them was a palpable sigh of relief—a feeling that after years of pain and loss, justice had finally been achieved.

Duntsch's known victims included:

  • Mary Erfurd, an elderly woman with a damaged spine
  • Kellie Martin, a woman who died from blood loss
  • Floella Brown, a woman killed from a severed artery
  • Jerry Summers, a childhood friend of the defendant who was left paralyzed from the neck down
  • Phillip Mayfield, another man left paralyzed by Duntsch
  • Barry Morguloff, another man left crippled by Duntsch
  • Lee Passmore, a medical examiner field agent who was forced to resign due to his injuries

These men and women came from all walks of life and all had their lives ended or irreparably altered by Christopher Duntsch—a man they all once called their doctor. Duntsch hasn't been a licensed neurosurgeon since 2013, but he's still known by his moniker (courtesy of Dallas Magazine): Dr. Death.

One of the Only Criminal Sentences for Medical Malpractice Ever

In Texas, medical malpractice caps and burdens of proof—thanks to recent tort reform—makes winning in civil court unlikely. However, the weight of evidence against Duntsch was so profound that he faced criminal charges for his negligence. Emails from 2011 indicated that he planned on becoming a murderer, using the operating theater as his crime scene. Former lovers and colleagues testified to his substance abuse and propensity for gross incompetence.

One of his colleagues commented that the sort of "mistakes" Duntsch was capable of were "never events": medical events that should never occur and have no excuse for happening. Most surgeons go their entire careers without a never event. Duntsch had several on his record within a period of two years. When he was permitted to conduct surgery at Baylor Plano, it took several disastrous surgeries before he was terminated.

He moved on to Dallas Medical Center, where he caused the death of a patient and was fired again—in less than a week. How could a doctor be allowed to practice so egregiously? How could anyone be allowed to hurt so many people in so short a time without someone stopping it?

Institutional Failure

While Duntsch's crimes are uniquely heinous, his crimes are still partially the fault of the hospitals that hired him. Four of the hospitals he's worked at are currently facing civil litigation for the acts that he committed while working there. Part of the reason it took several years for Duntsch to be caught and have his license revoked is the nature of medical malpractice cases: his employers settled with his patients in exchange for them never speaking about it.

Many of his victims were given an impossible choice: either accept a massive settlement and sign a non-disclosure agreement about the case (thus barring them from speaking publicly about Duntsch's work), or turn down the security they and their family desperately needed. These deals allowed Duntsch to continue working without disciplinary action.

It wasn't until Lee Passmore—after losing feeling in his legs thanks to Duntsch's handiwork—received a fax requesting a medical examiner that someone began putting the pieces together. At the top of the request was a name he recognized: Christopher Duntsch (who had inadvertently killed Kellie Martin, ergo the request). Using his investigative background, Passmore was the first to see a terrifying portrait: a megalomaniacal fraud and substance abuser who had hurt numerous patients through heinous disregard for their safety and care.

The story behind why hospitals kept hiring him might be more mundane than the rest of the story, however. Neurosurgeons are the third-most profitable surgeons at a hospital. Combined with the doctor's ability to wrangle recommendations and pad his resume, Duntsch had no problem finding work for several years. One neurosurgery center advanced him $600,000 to move to Dallas, and they didn't want to terminate him until he had made the center enough money to recoup their advance.

Much of the Story Isn't Reported

While Dallas Magazineand The Washington Post both published reports about Duntsch's record and history, shedding light on his abuses, there were many questions that were left unanswered. For one, his medical training has a massive, months-long gap in it that has never been accounted for. His alma mater, the University of Tennessee Health Science Center, declines to release his academic records citing federal privacy law.

What we do know is that as early as his fourth year of residency, Duntsch was suspected of abusing cocaine. He had an ex-girlfriend testify that they once spent a night doing LSD and cocaine—and then he put on his lab coat and headed to the hospital to make the rounds. She testified that he showed no worry or remorse in providing treatment while high.

Another colleague—who had to perform rescue surgery after Duntsch botched a procedure—questioned the quality of his training, testifying that Duntsch's surgical technique was the same level as a first-year resident. Even the defense attorney defended him by citing poor training. It boggles the mind that any doctor could defend himself by blaming his lack of skills.

One email reveals him comparing himself to "God, Einstein, and the Antichrist" for his ability to sidestep punishment for his rules violations. Even when he was under investigation due to multiple complaints, it took the Texas Medical Board more than a year to finally revoke his license in 2013.

Was There a Lesson Learned?

Stories like this are rare, but when you look past the sensational details and personality tics of the subject, you see that there are issues with the system surrounding Duntsch as well as the man himself. The Texas Medical Board took over a year of complaints from other surgeons before revoking his license. Multiple hospitals hired a dangerous doctor because he promised to make them millions. One hospital simply wanted to earn back what they spent on him. Settlements stipulated that no one could speak out or stop him without turning down the money they needed for medical care.

Duntsch may have earned his name, but his conviction may not stop the system from allowing another person like him from causing more damage. The simple truth is this: Duntsch should never have been allowed to wreak havoc in the first place.