A Cincinnati surgeon who fled the United States in 2013, after federal authorities had arrested him for fraud and released him on his own recognizance, has been ordered to pay $1.77 million in damages for unnecessary surgeries performed on two patients. Dr. Abubakar Atiq Durrani, a native of Pakistan, was tried in federal court in January.
Although not present, Durrani was represented by counsel for his medical malpractice insurer. According to Law360, the jury found Durrani “did, in fact, fabricate diagnoses and perform unneeded operations on two patients.”
The legal saga enveloping Durrani goes back to 2009 when federal prosecutors allege “Durrani and his clinic, Center for Advanced Spine Technologies, falsely told patients that they needed surgery and used scare tactics — such as claiming that a patient’s head might fall off if in a car accident because of a severely damaged spine — to frighten some patients into operations.”
Federal law enforcement arrested Durrani “in July 2013 on 10 criminal counts of fraud and making false statements as part of his scheme of performing unnecessary spinal surgeries for purposes of Medicare and insurance fraud.”
UC Health and its West Chester Hospital in Cincinnati, where Durrani practiced, were implicated in the False Claims action, and agreed to pay more than $4 million to settle those allegations in October 2015. That settlement with the U.S. Department of Justice put to rest charges of Medicare fraud arising from “unnecessary surgeries between 2009 and 2013.”
In addition, Durrani faced a torrent of some 500 lawsuits, which his malpractice insurer has been defending. The January verdicts were decided in favor of plaintiffs Carol Ross ($1.62 million) and the estate of Paul Markesberry Jr. ($150,000).
Ross and Markesberry had filed suit “with eight other patients in Ohio state court in May 2016, and their suit was removed to federal court that same month.” Ross had alleged that she had already had two neck surgeries to address pain before consulting Durrani, who performed a spinal fusion on her and immediately pressed her to have a fourth procedure. Durrani convinced her that without an additional procedure, she would be paralyzed. But, after that fourth operation, Ross began to experience extreme pain.
Markesberry had seen Durrani “after he was injured in a motor vehicle accident.” Durrani recommended “a discectomy with fusion, among other procedures.” The suspect surgeon also “used a bone growth agent that increased his risk of cancer.” The Law360 article does not say whether Markesberry later developed cancer, but he “died in February 2018, and his sister, Shannon Howard, took over his claim as the executrix of his estate.” Of the “six other patients that filed suit with Ross and Markesberry,” five won verdicts ranging “from $741,000 to over $1.3 million.” One case is “still pending.”
Lessons learned from the case of Atiq Durrani
The Durrani case is instructive for a few reasons. First, it is a cautionary tale for anyone considering elective surgery. Even licensed professionals can be scam artists.
Second, if you have a surgical malpractice case, you need to know whether your state has a statute of repose, which bars legal action after a certain amount of time. A statute of repose works in conjunction with a statute of limitations. For example, a statute of limitations might say you must bring an injury claim within two years of the injury, or lose your right to sue. But, the statute is subject to the “discovery rule,” which says that if the injury wasn’t obvious, your two-year period begins when you realized (or reasonably should have realized) that the surgeon had harmed you.
However, the statute of repose puts an outward limit on the discovery rule, by saying, “even so, you must bring your action within so many years.” Many plaintiffs had their claims against Durrani barred, because they filed after the limit set by Ohio’s four-year statute of repose.
Finally, there is the lesson for potential whistleblowers. Anyone who knew that Durrani and UC Health were committing Medicare fraud could have collected a bounty for the information from the U.S. Department of Justice. The federal Fair Claims Act allows private citizens to sue on behalf of the U.S. government when they have inside information about fraud against the government.
A whistleblower, in this case, could have collected roughly 15 percent of the $4 million the DoJ recovered from UC Health, which would come to about $600,000. In this case, the whistleblower would have also been a Good Samaritan, saving future victims from unnecessary and debilitating surgery.
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