Plaintiffs Awarded $6M for Unnecessary Spinal Surgeries From Doctor Accused of Medicare Fraud

In this medical malpractice case, the plaintiffs sued a spinal surgeon over unnecessary back surgeries and related injuries.

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ByCarolyn Casey, J.D.

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Published on February 2, 2023

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Updated onFebruary 2, 2023

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Case Overview

Case Name: Christopher Atwood, Rebekah Brady, Jennifer Hickey, Robert & Melaine Houghton, Paul Markesberry, Jr., Hiram & Dawn McCauley, Carol Ross, Michael & Diane Sander, David & Nancy Shempert and Richard Allen Stanfield v. Abubakar Atiq Durrani, M.D., Center For Advanced Spine Technologies, Inc. and West Chester Hospital, LLC.

Case Type: Medical Malpractice – Informed Consent; Unnecessary Procedure

Injuries:

  • Back – stenosis; fusion, lumbar; fusion, thoracic
  • Neck – stenosis; fusion, cervical
  • Other – spasm; infection; dehydration; physical therapy; pins/rods/screws; hardware implanted; foraminotomy/foraminectomy
  • Epidermis – numbness
  • Neurological – radiculopathy; radicular pain/radiculitis
  • Surgeries/Treatment – discectomy; laminectomy; laminectomy, lumbar; decompression surgery
  • Gastrointestinal/Digestive – colon

Plaintiff Attorneys:

  • Alan J. Statman; Statman Harris, LLC
  • Benjamin M. Maraan II; Law Offices of Benjamin M. Maraan II

Defense Attorneys:

  • Michael F. Lyon; Lindhorst & Dreidame Co., L.P.A. for Abubakar Atiq Durrani, Center For Advanced Spine Technologies Inc.
  • Paul J. Vollman; Lindhorst & Dreidame Co., L.P.A. for Abubakar Atiq Durrani, Center For Advanced Spine Technologies Inc.

Case Outcome: Verdict – Plaintiffs

Award Amount: $6,579,028.61

What Happened?

Ten patients of Ohio spinal surgeon Abubakar Atiq Durrani sued the doctor and related organizations for negligence. The plaintiffs claimed Dr. Durrani performed unnecessary spinal surgeries on them and that their conditions had worsened after his care.

The lawsuits ended up being separated into three trials. This summary reports on the third trial involving plaintiffs Hickey and Atwood.

Background: Doctor’s Arrest for Medicare Fraud

U.S. Authorities indicted Durrani in 2013 for Medicare fraud. The doctor, a Pakistani citizen, pled not guilty and fled the country after he was released on bond. Durrani remains overseas and has not been tried for criminal fraud charges.

After Dr. Durrani’s arrest, many of Durrani’s patients began to suspect that he had done unnecessary spinal surgeries on them. As a result, they filed lawsuits against him.

Jennifer Hickey’s Surgeries

At the time Jennifer Hickey saw Dr. Durrani for back pain, she was a teacher in her twenties. Dr. Durrani determined she needed surgery and operated on her spine on April 19, 2010. Several months later, Durrani performed another surgery on Jennifer to remove the screws he placed in her back during the initial procedure. Both surgeries took place at West Chester Hospital where Durrani was a spinal surgeon.

After her surgeries, Jennifer continued to experience severe back pain and continued nerve pain. She sought help from another doctor who gave her branch block injections in her cervical spine. In this spinal procedure, an alternative to back surgery, doctors inject local anesthetic and steroid medication outside a spinal joint space, near the nerve called the medical branch. Hickey claimed that the injection improved her thoracic spine symptoms.

Despite the treatment, this young woman could only do light workouts due to the remaining back pain.

Christopher Atwood’s Procedure

Christopher Atwood, a man in his 30s, endured spinal fusion surgery—on his T7-8, T8-9, T9-10, T10-11, and T11-12 vertebrae—at the hand of Dr. Abubakar Durrani. During the September 22, 2010 procedure, Durrani inserted two rods and 15 screws into Christopher’s spine. Atwood’s procedure also took place at West Chester Hospital.

Atwood says his pain increased rather than decreased after the procedure. Afterward, he found he had limited flexibility in his back. In follow-up appointments, Dr. Durrani told Christopher that this loss of flexibility was normal.

Atwood sought help for his continuing problems from pain management doctors, spinal surgeons, psychologists, and urologists. Christopher used opioids to manage his pain for a period of time. After easing off these drugs, he started using medical marijuana for his pain. He believes he will need to use marijuana as his primary treatment in the future.

Allegations and Testimony

Atwood and Hickey sued Durrani and his medical practice group, Center For Advanced Spine Technologies, along with West Chester Hospital and its corporate parent UC Health. In the lawsuit, these two plaintiffs alleged that Durrani negligently performed spinal surgeries on them that were not necessary. Jennifer Hickey also sued for Durrani’s negligent placement of surgical hardware into her spine during the initial surgery.

False Medical Advise

The Atwood and Hickey cases went to trial in 2021. At trial, their counsel argued that Dr. Durrani falsely led Hickey and Atwood to believe that they needed urgent spinal surgeries to address their back pain. The plaintiffs said Durrani told them they would end up paralyzed or in wheelchairs if they didn’t have the surgeries. He also promised they would be pain-free following the procedures.

Experts Weigh in

The neuroradiology expert for the plaintiffs found that neither Atwood’s nor Hickey’s films showed the disease level that Durrani insisted they had. Neurosurgery and orthopedic surgery experts came to similar opinions, finding that Atwood and Hickey’s test results and symptoms did not indicate that they needed surgery.

Counsel also made the point that Durrani diagnosed Atwood with thoracic spinal stenosis before her first surgery even though her radiological exams did not indicate stenosis.

Neuroradiology and neurosurgery experts for the defense each opined that the surgeries Durrani performed were proper, appropriate, and necessary.

Lack of Consent

The plaintiffs’ counsel also focused on the issue of consent to the medical procedures. The lawyers alleged that plaintiffs never consented to the procedures because they couldn’t consent to procedures that were not necessary.

A More Conservative Approach Called For

Rather than urgent surgery, Durrani should have prescribed conservative care for both Atwood and Hickey’s spinal conditions, claimed their lawyers. Counsel also alleged that Durrani’s failure to complete operative reports until several months after the surgeries was negligent behavior.

Screw Ups

The plaintiffs’ counsel claimed that after her first surgery, Hickey’s pain was worse than before Durrani did the procedure. After this surgery, Jennifer had severe nerve pain in her thoracic region.

Dr. Durrani informed her that the screws in her back had aggravated the nerve. He recommended an immediate second spinal surgery, which he performed in October 2010. The plaintiffs’ counsel contended that Durrani’s improper placement of the screw is what led to the aggravated nerve.

The plaintiffs’ counsel also claimed that Dr. Durrani made mistakes in his notes on Hickey’s second procedure. Durrani’s notes said that he removed the hardware from Jennifer’s T5-7 vertebrae in the follow-up surgery. Yet, there was no documentation that Durrani had inserted hardware at T7 during the first surgery. In addition, Hickey claimed she had not consented to hardware insertion at that location before the April surgery.

Damages Sought

Hickey asserted that she would continue to require conservative care for her back condition in the future. Hickey also said that her symptoms after the procedures render her only capable of doing light workouts.

Atwood and Hickey both sought recovery of past medical expenses, including the costs of the unnecessary spinal surgeries. They also wanted compensation for future medical expenses, damages for their past and future pain and suffering, damages for their past and future loss of enjoyment of life, and punitive damages.

The defense claimed that the plaintiffs did get better following Durrani’s surgeries. The defense counsel pointed to post-surgical medical records where the plaintiffs indicated that they felt good.

Who Won the Case?

After a two-week trial, it took the jury only half a day to unanimously rule in favor of the plaintiffs. The six jurors found that Dr. Durrani was negligent in his care of both Atwood and Hickey and that his negligence caused their injuries.

Specifically, the jury said that Abubakar Durrani overstated radiological findings, fabricated diagnoses, misdiagnosed them, performed unnecessary spinal surgeries, failed to prescribe conservative care, and selected an improper surgical procedure. He also did not make timely operative reports and failed to obtain informed consent from the patients. In addition, the jurors found that the doctor improperly placed surgical hardware during Hickey’s surgery.

Hickey Damages

The jury awarded Jennifer Hickey the following damages, totaling $4,687,819.62:

  • $122,919.62 for past medical costs
  • $35,100 for future medical costs
  • $364,000 for past loss of enjoyment of life
  • $900,900 for future loss of enjoyment of life
  • $2,000,000 for punitive exemplary damages
  • $900,900 for future pain and suffering
  • $364,000 for past pain and suffering

Atwood Damages

Christopher Atwood’s damages added up to $1,891,208.99, breaking out as follows:

  • $ 108,608.99 for past medical costs
  • $ 91,000 for past loss of enjoyment of life
  • $ 300,300 for future loss of enjoyment of life
  • $ 1,000,000 for punitive exemplary damages
  • $ 300,300 for future pain and suffering
  • $ 91,000 for past pain and suffering

The defense plans to appeal all 10 verdicts, including Atwood’s and Hickey’s. Their primary grounds for an appeal will be that the trial judge erred in allowing the juries to hear that Dr. Durrani has been indicted and fled the country. Further errors in the defense’s view include allowing prior lawsuit and medical board findings information into evidence and the jury adverse-inference instructions and prejudicial interrogatories to the jury.

Expert Specialities

The plaintiffs retained expert witnesses in:

The defendants retained expert witnesses in:

Key Takeaways

This case reminds malpractice lawyers that a doctor’s interpretation of radiographic films, patient diagnoses, prescriptions for particular conditions, and their surgical performance will always be key factual issues in negligence lawsuits. Thus, engaging respected, credible experts to opine on the facts of your cases is paramount for convincing a jury that your client has been wronged.

In this particular case, the outcome of the appeal on the judge’s allowing the jury to hear evidence on the doctor’s arrest and fleeing the country and other items will be instructive for future cases.

About the author

Carolyn Casey, J.D.

Carolyn Casey, J.D.

Carolyn Casey is a seasoned professional with extensive experience in legal tech, e-discovery, and legal content creation. As Principal of WritMarketing, she combines her decade of Big Law experience with two decades in software leadership to provide strategic consulting in product strategy, content, and messaging for legal tech clients. Previously, Carolyn served as Legal Content Writer for Expert Institute, Sr. Director of Industry Relations at AccessData, and Director of Product Marketing at Zapproved, focusing on industry trends in forensic investigations, compliance, privacy, and e-discovery. Her career also includes roles at Iron Mountain as Head of Legal Product Management and Sr. Product Marketing Manager, where she led product and marketing strategies for legal services, and at Fios Inc as Sr. Marketing Manager, specializing in eDiscovery solutions.

Her early legal expertise was honed at Brobeck, Phleger & Harrison, where she developed legal strategies for mergers, acquisitions, and international finance matters. Carolyn's education includes a J.D. from American University Washington College of Law, where she was a Senior Editor for the International Law Journal and participated in a pioneering China Summer Law Program. She also holds an AB in Political Science with a minor in art history from Stanford University. Her diverse skill set encompasses research, creative writing, copy editing, and a deep understanding of legal product marketing and international legal trends.