NEW PORT RICHEY — A back surgeon whose noninvasive techniques have made him the target of numerous lawsuits and drawn criticism from the state Board of Medicine won a victory last week, but it might be temporary.
A Pasco County jury sided with Dr. Alfred O. Bonati in the case of a Palatka resident who said neck surgeries performed by Bonati and a former colleague left her unable to walk.
Patricia Shaw-Caillouet and her husband, Allen Caillouet, said in the original 2005 complaint that Bonati and Dr. James St. Louis performed unnecessary and improper surgeries between December 2002 and March 2003 after she went to the Bonati Institute in Hudson for neck pain.
After the last operation, the complaint said, Caillouet bled and had trouble walking or controlling her bowels. She went to the Mayo Clinic for treatment.
Bonati's attorneys did not return calls for comment.
His spokespeople have said he and his staff have successfully performed 35,000 operations during the course of his practice. His website includes testimonials from patients praising his work.
Court filings show Bonati and St. Louis denied Caillouet's allegations of negligence. St. Louis, who went on to found a rival practice, the Laser Spine Institute in Tampa, was dismissed as a defendant before the case went to trial.
Despite the verdict, the case isn't over yet.
Before the jury returned, Caillouet's attorney, Gary Roberts, moved for a mistrial after one of his expert witnesses was questioned by the defense.
But Circuit Judge W. Lowell Bray held off on a ruling until after jurors rendered a decision. He gave lawyers on both sides 15 days to file paperwork before he decides whether the case should be retried.
Roberts declined to comment on the verdict or the case but said his client is not going away.
"Dr. Bonati will see this case again," he said.
In the past, Bonati, 71, has blamed his legal troubles on Roberts, a Palm Beach attorney who has filed numerous lawsuits against Bonati and his surgery center.
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. That surgeon was a witness for Bonati in the Caillouet case.
In 2001, clients who sued reached an agreement to share in an $8 million court settlement after Bonati filed for bankruptcy.
And in February, 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.
Last year, 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. That case remains pending.
However, the latest headlines involving Bonati had nothing to do with medicine. In August, as he and a companion were returning home from Chile, U.S. Customs agents seized a painting titled The Ballerina, which Bonati said was the work of the great French artist Edgar Degas.
This time, Bonati was the plaintiff. He now is embroiled in a lawsuit with his attorneys over $1 million in legal fees.