Lisa Bernard-Kuhn reports:
Closing arguments are expected today in the first trial of dozens of civil lawsuits filed against Mason spine surgeon Dr. Atiq Durrani. But Durrani won’t be in the courtroom.
Durrani – a Pakistani native – is being tried in absentia, having fled the country late last year, according to the U.S. Attorney’s Office, which issued a warrant for his arrest in December.
More than 170 patients have sued Durrani in Hamilton and Butler county courts, most alleging that he performed unnecessary surgeries and botched many of them.
Crystal Pierce, of Green Township, was among the first to file a lawsuit in Hamilton County Common Pleas Court alleging that a surgery performed by Durrani in 2009 made her spine conditions worse and left her with agonizing pain.
Her lawyer Eric Deters represents most of the patients who have sued Durrani, and in several cases have also sued UC Health’s West Chester Hospital and Cincinnati Children’s Hospital Medical Center in Corryville.
Durrani, whose Center for Advanced Spine Technologies has offices in Evendale and Florence, also is accused of fraudulently billing Medicare millions of dollars for unnecessary surgeries. He was arrested by federal agents on those criminal charges in July. A grand jury issued a 36-count indictment against him the following month.
That trial is scheduled for August, while the remaining cases have court dates scheduled through 2015.
During the current civil suit, jurors have only been told – at the direction of visiting Hamilton County Judge Guy C. Guckenberger – that Durrani has elected not to attend.
His absence presents big challenges for both sides of the courtroom, says John H. Metz, a Cincinnati lawyer with more than 35 years experience in medical malpractice.
“There are no slam dunk cases, even if the doctor isn’t present,” said Metz.
Durrani, who was suspended from practicing in Kentucky and Ohio in November, is being defended by Cincinnati lawyer Michael Lyon, a well-known medical malpractice attorney. Often defense lawyers in civil malpractice cases against physicians prefer to have their client testify, or at least be present, so the jury “can feel some sympathy for them,” said Metz.
The jury equates their sympathy with, “How can you fault someone for doing the best they could?” Metz said.
And for the plaintiff, no Durrani means no cross examination from Deters – who’s known for having an aggressive court-room manner.
“It’s a loss for Deters,” said Metz. “Usually, in cross examination you try to get the doctor to make certain concessions. If the doctor is evasive, or a smart aleck, that doesn’t translate to the jurors very well.”
Opening statements in Pierce’s case against Durrani began last Tuesday, with the remainder of the week dedicated to witness statements.
Pierce testified Wednesday that Durrani told her she would be immediately paralyzed if she didn’t undergo the procedures he recommended in 2009. While a first surgery helped her, a second in January 2009 was botched, according to testimony Thursday from Dr. Keith Wilkey, a St. Louis-based spine surgeon called by Deters. On Friday, jurors heard expert testimony that rebuffed Wilkey from Dr. Patrick McCormick, a neurosurgeon based in Toledo. McCormick said a laminoplasty performed on Pierce to remove pressure from her spinal chord and neck was indeed necessary and in line with what most physicians should have recommended for her spinal stenosis, a narrowing of the spinal chord.
Meanwhile, the FBI, Department of Homeland Security and the U.S. Marshals offices are searching for Durrani. At the time of his arrest in August, Durrani was forced to hand over his passport to federal authorities and was forbidden to travel internationally.
Durrani later filed a request with federal courts to to visit Pakistan to see his terminally ill father, but the requiest was denied.
A log of Durrani’s legal woes
Dozens of civil lawsuits begin to be filed in Hamilton and Butler county courts, mostly by lawyer Eric Deters on behalf of former Durrani patients.
Durrani is arrested at his Mason by federal agents on criminal health care fraud charges.
Durrani pleads not guilty to federal criminal charges. Grand jury issues what eventually becomes a 36-count indictment.
Durrani pleads not guilty to federal charges of health care fraud.
Federal court denies Durrani’s request to leave the U.S. to visit his terminally ill father in Pakistan.
Kentucky and Ohio medical boards suspends Durrani‘s medical license.
The U.S. Attorney’s office reports that Durrani has fled the country, issues a warrant for his arrest.
Sources: Hamilton County Common Pleas Court, Butler County Common Pleas Court, U.S. District Court