A spinal surgeon who draws international patients and malpractice suits may be going back to court.
Published June 14, 2009|Updated June 15, 2009

A spinal surgeon who draws patients from around the world and who has been sued numerous times for malpractice is being sued again, this time by a Michigan woman who says he performed 13 surgeries on her in seven months and kept her at a private condominium for six weeks after a botched operation.

Like many other patients from out of state, Stacy Mahan, a 41-year-old registered nurse, found Dr. Alfred O. Bonati on the Internet, said Susan Ramsey, an attorney at the firm of Gary Roberts, the West Palm Beach attorney who filed the complaint in U.S. District Court in Tampa last month.

The 45-page lawsuit names Bonati, his practice and subsidiaries, three anesthesiologists, two nurse practitioners and two nurses, as well as Maxim Healthcare Services and its home health care division, along with 15 of its nurses. The case cites the federal Racketeering Influenced Corrupt Organizations Act, which entitles plaintiffs to triple damages if they receive a monetary verdict.

Bonati is the founder of the Bonati Institute, a practice that specializes in minimally invasive back surgery. Bonati's Web site says he uses patented tools and techniques for outpatient operations that require local anesthesia.

Ramsey declined to talk about specifics of the case, citing pending litigation, but she agreed to talk generally about what plaintiffs report happens at the Bonati Institute. She described their initial encounters as "a seduction."

"They have gone through more conventional treatments and still have pain. They're told, 'Dr. Bonati is God, and he will fix you.' If you're the person who's been through hell, this is exactly what you want to hear."

Bonati's lawyer said last week that she had not seen a copy of the complaint and could not comment on it. Maxim Health Resources did not return calls for comment.

Several surgeries

The lawsuit says Mahan was suffering from moderate lower spinal and back, hip, and left leg pain when she first visited the glass-walled Bonati Institute at 7315 Hudson Ave. on Nov. 6, 2006.

A nurse practitioner diagnosed her with lower spine pain, with symptoms of weakness and numbness. The nurse ordered X-rays and tests.

A series of surgeries followed. During the fourth operation on Dec. 18, 2006, the lawsuit alleges, Bonati "caused or produced" an injury to the covering of Mahan's spine, causing her spinal fluid to leak. A drain was put in place and removed the next day.

Two days later, Mahan called to report a large amount of light red drainage from her incision and developed "intractable pain."

After another surgery on Feb. 20, 2007, the lawsuit said, Mahan reported more drainage.

A leak in the covering of the spine was identified and immediately repaired.

By then, Mahan was in so much pain she needed a strong narcotic patch to control it, according to the complaint.

"The number of operations carried out on Mahan is in keeping with a pattern of practice including multiple operations on virtually each patient seen and treated at the Bonati Institute and Gulf Coast Orthopedic Center over many years," the lawsuit said.

"Regardless of whether or not such practice is or is not appropriate conduct and practice for a spine surgeon (even a 'minimally invasive one')," the lawsuit continues, "none of the operations done after 2/20/07 by Bonati could have been reasonably expected to address the problems both created by and identified by previous operations carried out by Bonati on Mahan."

The complaint accuses Bonati and his agents of negligently concluding and advising Mahan that she did not have an active spinal leak. The lawsuit also says Bonati and his staff never addressed the problem during later surgeries.

Starting April 5, 2007, the lawsuit alleges, Mahan was put in a private condo at 707 W Gulf Beach Island and Tennis Club in Hudson and received care from nurses employed by Maxim Health Services.

"Her severity of illness was far beyond the ability to care for her medically and/or surgically in a hotel/motel/condominium location," the lawsuit said.

It also questioned whether Bonati was operating what amounted to a health care facility in the condo, in violation of local and state laws.

The complaint accused Bonati, who does not have hospital admitting privileges, of "trying to hide his mistakes" by putting Mahan in the "off-site private, unsanitary condominium."

Pasco County Zoning Administrator Debra Zampetti said such use of a condo does not appear to violate any zoning laws.

"It would be the same as an elderly person who didn't want to move to an assisted living facility hiring nurses," she said.

In addition to the malpractice claims, the lawsuit also makes allegations about Bonati's background.

Among them:

- That he fraudulently entered the United States from Chile, failed the American Board of Orthopedic Surgery exam twice, then created his own board and certified himself;

- That to be accepted in Cook County Hospital's training program, he falsely represented in writing that he attended Catholic University in Rome, later admitting that the university was bogus; and that he later claimed to have attended the University of Naples in Italy, which in litigation he admitted was bogus and that he doesn't even know if it exists;

- That he falsified recommendation letters to get into medical school at Wake Forest University. The lawsuit says two doctors whom Bonati claimed to have drafted and signed the letters denied doing so in court depositions.

- That he was placed on academic probation at Wake Forest, and while there submitted false information to obtain medical licenses in North Carolina and Florida, which "he still holds by renewal."

Prior battles

Attorney Roberts and Bonati have a long history of court battles.

In 1996, Roberts won a $3.5 million judgment against Bonati, his fellow doctors and his Hudson medical practices.

A Hernando County woman told the jury that Bonati and his clinics performed unnecessary and risky surgeries in a scheme to collect insurance money.

The jury found against Bonati, but the doctor declared bankruptcy during the trial. The jury's $3.5 million verdict was later overtured by a U.S. magistrate who said it was "grossly excessive and without support in the evidence."

The Hernando woman's complaint and a number of other malpractice claims against Bonati ended in 2001. They shared in an $8 million court settlement that allowed Bonati and his practices to emerge from bankruptcy. The doctor admitted no liability and his disgruntled ex-patients dropped their complaints.

In the meantime, the Florida Board of Medicine investigated numerous complaints against Bonati. He reached a deal with the board in 2002 that let him continue to practice under the supervision of another surgeon.

That ended in 2005, and the Florida Department of Health said the doctor has fulfilled all his obligations to the state.

A check of any pending complaints shows Bonati's record is clear and his license is active.

Despite the lawsuits against the Hudson surgeon, the Bonati Institute for Advanced Arthroscopic Surgery's Web site is filled with testimonials praising his medical care.

Attorney Ramsey said she doesn't doubt them.

"I'm sure there are patients who walk away and are fine."

Lisa Buie can be reached at or (813) 909-4604.