Dr. Christopher Duntsch arrived in Texas in 2010 to start a neurosurgery practice. By 2013, he had killed two patients from malpractice, paralyzed four others, and had his medical license revoked. Our team of medical malpractice lawyers examines this horrifying story and the problems within the Texas legislature that allowed it to happen.
Throughout the three years he was practicing in Texas, physicians, patients, and malpractice lawyers repeatedly tried to have his license suspended. Their efforts were unsuccessful for so long because of a series of conservative reforms in the Texas court and medical systems. Over the past ten years, these reforms have severely limited the resources and options available to patients injured by negligent physicians.
The medical system in Texas used to be overseen by a connected network between the state medical board, hospital management, and the courts, which prevented and punished cases of medical malpractice. This changed around 2003, when the Republican Texas Legislature set maximum dollar amounts for malpractice lawsuits at $250,000. This is problematic for many reasons that are beyond the scope of this article, but in essence the damage cap does not adequately protect patients who suffer permanent injuries from doctors like Duntsch and deters malpractice lawsuits from being filed.
Other laws were introduced that protected hospitals from being sued for the actions of their doctors. Currently, Texas law states that hospitals may only be held liable for damages if the plaintiff can prove that hospital management knew that the doctor posed an extreme risk to patients and hired them anyway. Compounding this, hospitals in Texas are allowed to keep all their information regarding doctor hiring practices completely private, so neither patients nor plaintiffs can access them.
So, with hospitals deregulated and the court system substantially curtailed, the Texas Medical Board was all that remained to police physicians and protect patients. The board, however, was established to monitor physician licenses and oversee professional standards, not in any way protect the public. The board's intention is to protect physician's rights, and does not revoke medical licenses unless there is overwhelming, inarguable evidence such as a felony conviction or dolling out opioids to addicts.
Dr. Duntsch and His Wake of Destruction
In 2010, Duntsch started a practice, the Texas Neurological Institute and worked at Baylor Regional Medical Center in Plano. Another surgeon at Baylor told the Texas Observer that Duntsch was, by far, the worst surgeon he had seen, even when performing relatively minor procedures.
Reports of serious harm done to patients by Duntsch are long and illustrate consistently dangerous and unconscionable medical care. After the first few botched surgeries Baylor had to bring in senior surgeons to correct the damage done to patients, though most of it was irreparable. Duntsch even operated on a childhood friend, severely damaged his spinal cord, and delayed follow-up tests so long that his friend permanently lost the use of his arms and legs.
Duntsch was suspended for 30 days, after which he was supposed to be supervised during every surgery. This never happened; soon after the first paralysis, a woman named Kellie Martin went to Duntsch to treat back pain. Duntsch recommended a microlaminectomy, a minor surgery which removes part of the spine to relieve pain from nerve pressure.
Duntsch performed the surgery, which was supposed to take 45 minutes, unsupervised. Two hours after she went in the OR, her husband asked to speak with Duntsch, who said there had been some complications and she would have to stay the night. Another few hours later, she was rushed to the intensive care unit. Ultimately, after an excruciating wait, he and his daughters were told Kellie had died.
The medical examiner had to examine her twice because he was so shocked by the state her body was in. It was clear Duntsch severed one of her spinal arteries during surgery (as he had with his childhood friend a month prior), and failed to notice it in time to save her life. She eventually bled to death.