Some of former Duluth doctor's Texas patients claim harmEleven people the News Tribune has spoken with who live in the Corpus Christi, Texas, area where the former St. Luke’s neurosurgeon now practices allege they or their loved ones experienced negative outcomes after being treated by him.
In April, Dr. Stefan Konasiewicz performed a neck fusion on Monica Roberts of Corpus Christi, Texas. Another Corpus Christi resident, Linda Cavazos, said Konasiewicz performed spinal surgery on her father, Juan, on Jan. 27 at one of the city’s hospitals.
Roberts and Cavazos are two of the 11 people the News Tribune has spoken with who live in the Corpus Christi area where the former St. Luke’s neurosurgeon now practices and who allege they or their loved ones experienced negative outcomes after being treated by him.
In total, the News Tribune has identified 82 patients or family members of Konasiewicz’s patients. Of those, at least nine have filed malpractice lawsuits against Konasiewicz and St. Luke’s hospital. The neurosurgeon and the hospital have settled six of those suits for at least $3.2 million. Two of the lawsuits went to juries, both resulting in not-negligent verdicts. Citing four cases, including one in which a patient died, Konasiewicz was also disciplined by the Minnesota Board of Medical Practice for “unprofessional and unethical conduct.”
Since 1990, Konasiewicz is one of five neurosurgeons in Minnesota disciplined by the state’s board of medical practice, and only the second neurosurgeon to be disciplined in Minnesota as a result of charges prompted by allegations of harming patients.
Citing Minnesota’s action, the state of Wisconsin also restricted Konasiewicz’s license.
“Had we known”
Other Corpus Christi residents said they wished they had known about Konasiewicz’s past.
Barbara Carlyon said in mid-July that Konasiewicz performed brain surgery on her sister, Wanda McCarty. After the surgery, Carlyon said, McCarty went into a coma for eight days, and then died.
Carlyon said she didn’t know about Konasiewicz’s malpractice claims in Minnesota and that he had been disciplined by the state’s board of medical practice until a Corpus Christi TV station did a news report on him.
“Had we known about that, it would not have been him doing the surgery,” Carlyon said.
Konasiewicz, who worked at St. Luke’s from 1997 to 2008, has practiced at the South Texas Brain and Spine Institute in Corpus Christi since at least September 2008, when his clinic took out an ad in the county medical society’s newsletter welcoming Konasiewicz.
Konasiewicz has declined repeated requests for comment to the News Tribune. Roxanna Perez Stevens, an attorney representing the South Texas Brain and Spine Institute, praised Konasiewicz in a statement for being a “caring and competent neurosurgeon who provides excellent care.”
“There are many people alive today who live a better life because of the medical care and treatment that Dr. Konasiewicz has provided to them. The South Texas Brain and Spine Center takes its patients’ healthcare very seriously and continues to provide its patients with the utmost quality and highest standards in healthcare using the most effective and modern technologies available.”
In 2010, the Minnesota Board of Medical Practice disciplined Konasiewicz for what was deemed “unprofessional and unethical conduct,” and ordered him to have some of his surgeries supervised by another neurosurgeon to continue to practice in the state.
However, the Texas Medical Board has taken no such action against him, meaning his license is not restricted and he does not need to have his work supervised.
Some of Konasiewicz’s patients in Texas whom the News Tribune has spoken with said they are considering taking legal action against Konasiewicz. Three attorneys in the Corpus Christi area said they’ve been contacted by patients asking about filing malpractice suits against Konasiewicz.
Attorneys rarely take cases
But in Texas, filing malpractice suits is rare. A study in the Journal of the American College of Surgeons found that since 2003, the year major tort reform laws were approved by voters and signed into law by Gov. Rick Perry, malpractice suits dropped 80 percent.
“It has become virtually impossible for most patients harmed by dangerous doctors to access the legal process and hold the physicians accountable,” said N. Alex Winslow, executive director of Texas Watch, a citizen advocacy organization. “Without a doubt, patients who are being harmed have little, if any, legal recourse at all.”
The tort reforms capped the amount of money a litigant can receive on non-economic damages against a doctor at $250,000, which some Texas attorneys said make it cost-prohibitive to bring a case.
“I hate to put it in terms of money,” said Abraham Moss, a Corpus Christi attorney who has worked malpractice cases for 35 years, “but the caps take the incentive away to pursue cases that are inherently expensive.”
Other obstacles reduce the number of lawsuits, such as requiring an expert’s report on medical records within 120 days of filing suit. Often, said Moss, those reports are written to a medical standard but not a legal standard, which causes the cases to get dropped. If that happens, the doctor can request a judge to require the litigant to pay for the doctor’s legal fees.
“Doctors here don’t have to worry all that much about getting sued,” said Moss, who added that he has been contacted about filing a suit against Konasiewicz.
Moss said that of the 30 to 40 malpractice cases he reviews in a month, “I might take one.”
With the dearth of malpractice suits, doctors have flocked to Texas. Since 2003, more than 11,000 doctors have moved to the state to practice, according to records kept by the Texas Medical Board.
“It’s open season, and there are many bad doctors coming here because they feel like they can get away with it,” said Tom Rhodes, a malpractice attorney in San Antonio.
While supporters of tort reform acknowledge that some of those physicians coming to Texas may be doctors trying to hide from malpractice suits in other states, they say the reforms also have proved beneficial to patients by bringing in more specialists to the state and lowering liability costs for doctors and hospitals.
“And the money saved in liability costs has been put back into expanded service for Texans,” said George Christian, the general counsel for the Texas Civil Justice League, an advocate for tort reforms.
Though Christian acknowledged the reforms have probably brought more bad doctors to the state, he said it should be up to the Texas Medical Board to police those doctors. When the reforms were passed, the board’s budget and staffing was also increased so that it could have greater oversight over the state’s physicians.
“It’s their responsibility to find these people, yank their licenses and get them out of here,” Christian said.
There’s evidence to suggest they’re doing just that. An analysis by the News Tribune shows that from 2003 to 2010, the disciplinary actions taken by the Texas Medical Board have increased 93 percent, while the number of licenses the board has issued increased 40 percent.
But Winslow of Texas Watch counters that his state’s medical board isn’t doing enough when it disciplines bad doctors.
“The board sometimes doesn’t have the legal authority, the wherewithal, the funding or in some cases the desire to go after doctors,” he said, noting that no action has been taken against Konasiewicz in Texas, despite discipline in Minnesota and Wisconsin.
And if patients are harmed by a doctor, Tom Rhodes, a malpractice attorney in San Antonio, said, the actions taken by the Texas board can’t help victims.
“There’s no recompense for these people,” Rhodes said. “Our system shouldn’t be designed to allow people to get rich, but to get back what’s been taken from them. And that’s not happening.”
St. Luke's: In response
In a request by News Tribune Investigations Editor Brandon Stahl to St. Luke’s hospital for comment about the articles in the series, “The Case of Dr. Konasiewicz,” on this page and on Page A6, St. Luke’s provided the following response:
Statement of St. Luke’s
September 23, 2011
The questions you ask pertain to the subject matter of the defamation lawsuit St. Luke’s filed against you, Mark Stodghill and the Duluth News Tribune on September 19, 2011. It is inappropriate for St. Luke’s to provide you with additional information relating directly to this subject matter outside of the court supervised discovery process. Accordingly, please direct future inquiries relating to the subject matter of St. Luke’s lawsuit against you, Mark Stodghill and the Duluth News Tribune through your legal counsel to ours, Pat Tierney.