Panel orders Hudson back surgeon Dr. Bonati to pay $2 million to patient

Published March 7, 2013

An arbitration panel has ordered a Hudson back surgeon to pay $2 million to a Hillsborough woman who said she had six operations during the first three months of 2007.

The panel awarded Vilmary Mojica the money after hearing testimony in January, four years after the 38-year-old woman sued Dr. Alfred O. Bonati and Gulf Coast Orthopedic Center for medical negligence.

The lawsuit alleged that Bonati subjected Mojica to unnecessary tests and performed five unnecessary surgeries. Bonati attorney Sam Heller, who did not return calls for comment in this story, categorically denied the lawsuit's allegations in court records, and said any injuries were caused by Mojica's own negligence or that of unknown third parties.

Mojica's lawsuit claimed the doctor breached the duty of care by:

• Failing to try, recommend or allow a period of "conservative" treatment before resorting to "inappropriate unnecessary, unreasonable and injury producing" procedures, even though her back had hurt for only two months.

• Injuring the covering of the spinal column, causing fluid to leak.

• Causing a complication called avascular necrosis, the death of bone tissue due to a lack of blood supply that can lead to a bone's collapse. The lawsuit said the condition destroyed both of Mojica's hip joints and caused her adrenal glands to fail for several months.

• Performing two procedures that "have no accepted validity, rationale or scientific basis."

• Performing a procedure that is more invasive and complicated than what is used by most doctors who perform it, "for no apparent evident reason other than the possibility of personal financial gain and/or exploitation" of the patient and/or her insurance company.

"She is permanently totally disabled as a result of her relying on the representations made in the creative Internet advertising and by the falsehoods she was told at the Bonati Institute," said her attorney, Gary Roberts, who presented the case along with Dr. Fred L. Cohen, a board-certified neurosurgeon who still practices medicine in addition to being a lawyer. Roberts said his client was told she was at immediate risk of paralysis, when in fact she had only one herniated disc.

"She trusted Dr. Alfred Bonati with her care," he said. "That proved to be the worst decision of her life."

The lawsuit also accuses Bonati of steering Mojica to a public motel for post-operative care rather than "an appropriate hospital setting as a result of his own operative error or complication."

As a result of the treatment by Bonati, the lawsuit said, Mojica had to take seven medications and later had to have "extensive remedial surgery" from another physician.

Bonati's 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.

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In the past, Bonati, 72, 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, other patients reached an agreement to share in an $8 million court settlement after Bonati filed for bankruptcy. Several months later, 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 February 2010, 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.

The state Department of Health prosecution services unit filed a case in 2010 alleging 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 is pending.