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Lawyer fights fine over leaked information about Bonati Institute

When he has been sued over the past decade, well-known Hudson back surgeon Alfred O. Bonati blames Gary W. Roberts, a Palm Beach trial lawyer who he says has a vendetta.

Not true, Roberts counters. If Bonati weren't such a bad doctor, he says, he wouldn't have to file lawsuits.

Now the two are fighting it out again after a 2005 malpractice lawsuit resulted in a Pasco circuit judge fining Roberts more than $23,400, saying he violated a confidentiality agreement by telling another attorney where Bonati's practice did its banking.

None of the attorneys in the case would respond to messages. But court papers tell the complicated story.

The first lawsuit was filed by Patricia Shaw-Caillouet and her husband, Allen. Represented by Roberts, the Palatka couple claimed Bonati's surgeries, which they called unnecessary and improper, left her unable to walk after she sought help for neck pain at the glass-walled Bonati Institute on U.S. 19. After years of being tied up in court, the case was ultimately decided last year in Bonati's favor.

Afterward, Roberts worked with a Walton County attorney in an unrelated case to defend a former Bonati employee named Anthony Mork, who was accused of violating a noncompete agreement and disclosing trade secrets.

As part of a settlement, Bonati's practice, Gulf Coast Orthopedic Center, had to pay Mork $250,000. But when Bonati had not responded to a request to pay up, Mork's attorneys got Gulf Coast's banks to garnishee about $23,400 from Gulf Coast's accounts.

Bonati then went back to Pasco's circuit court and accused Roberts of violating a confidentiality order in the malpractice case by revealing the names of the banks to an outside party.

Roberts defended himself by saying the information came from public records. Bonati requested all the records and couldn't find the names.

The Walton County attorney submitted an email from Roberts' office that named the banks. Roberts then said the confidentiality agreement applied only to documents in the case, not general information.

He also said the email was likely sent by a paralegal, and the disclosure was not done on purpose, a claim that Bonati's attorney's disputed.

Circuit Judge Lowell Bray didn't buy it. He said it didn't matter whether the slip-up was intentional and issued a civil contempt order for Roberts to pay $23,400 to Gulf Coast.

"Whether it was intentional or not it was still a violation, and frankly the Court is somewhat disturbed by the representations that were made (that) this was from the public record, which now seems to be abandoned," he wrote.

Roberts, who said he would rather pay the fine to charity than the "wealthy" Gulf Coast, appealed.

And this month, the 2nd District Court of Appeal sent it back to Bray.

The higher court said the law requires that Roberts' violation has to be found "willful" and Bray failed to determine that.

"Without a finding of intent," the higher court ruled, "the sanction cannot stand."

However, that doesn't necessarily mean the fine will go away.

"The court may reimpose the civil contempt sanction" if Bray determines the violation was intentional, the appeal court ruled.

This latest dispute stands at the end of a long line of legal battles for Bonati. Praised by hundreds of patients (including NFL players), Bonati's trademark is his use of lasers and his own patented tools to perform minimally invasive back surgery.

However, his techniques also have led to malpractice complaints and scrutiny from the Florida Board of Medicine, which has a pending administrative complaint against him.

In 1996, Roberts won a $3.5 million verdict on behalf of a Hernando County woman. But a federal magistrate overturned the award, saying it was excessive and not supported by evidence.

In 2001, the state Board of Medicine filed a 63-count claim of wrongdoing involving a dozen patients in the early 1990s.

The case was settled in 2002, with Bonati agreeing to give $50,000 to a program for the medically needy and reimburse the state $116,000 for the cost of prosecution. He was placed on probation for two years and agreed to be monitored by another surgeon, who later signed off on his work.

In 2001, patients who sued reached an agreement to share in an $8 million court settlement after Bonati filed for bankruptcy.

And in 2011, an arbitration panel awarded nearly $12 million to a couple who claimed a series of unnecessary operations at the Bonati Institute left the husband unable to walk.

In 2010, a complaint filed by the state Department of Health prosecution services unit alleged that a series of operations left a 55-year-old man in worse shape than before he went in for neck and back pain in 2004. No action has been taken in those cases.

Times staff writer Lisa Buie can be reached at buietimeswriter@gmail.com.

Lawyer fights fine over leaked information about Bonati Institute 03/21/14 [Last modified: Friday, March 21, 2014 7:32pm]
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