Doctors in lawsuit now suing attorneys

Published March 7, 2007

TAMPA - They got hammered with a record-breaking $217-million verdict for misdiagnosing a patient who suffered a stroke.

Now the doctors who were the target of that high-profile lawsuit are hoping to turn the tables. They're suing their attorneys.

Among the doctors' chief complaints: The attorneys turned down settlement offers of $1-million and $3-million, a fraction of the final judgment.

"This case should have never gone to trial," said D. Frank Winkles, who is representing Franklin, Favata & Hulls physicians group and Carrollwood Emergency Physicians.

"It should have settled. Those doctors were just hung out to dry," Winkles said.

The other doctor involved in the case, Michael Austin, is represented by Tampa attorney Barry Cohen, who said the lawsuit spoke for itself.

"The allegations are pretty clear," Cohen said.

The lawyers named in the suit, filed March 2 in Hillsborough Circuit Court, did not return telephone calls seeking comment.

The lawyers are Louis J. LaCava and Victor Guzman, who work for a West Palm Beach firm that also has a Tampa branch. Also named is Brian Stokes, who is with The Unger Law Group, which is based in Orlando.

The disagreement stems from a medical malpractice case decided by a Tampa jury in October.

Allan Navarro, a former pro basketball player in the Philippines, went to the University Community Hospital Carrollwood emergency room Aug. 9, 2000, complaining of nausea, headache, dizziness and double vision.

He was sent home five hours later with a painkiller prescription and a diagnosis of sinusitis.

No one realized Navarro was having a stroke. He returned to the hospital with more severe symptoms the next morning and underwent surgery hours later to relieve brain swelling. He ended up in a coma for three months and emerged from it permanently disabled.

Before his illness, Navarro was a machine operator earning just above minimum wage. Now he is confined to bed or must use a wheelchair.

Navarro's attorneys sued. Testimony revealed that an unlicensed physician's assistant initially examined Navarro, and Austin based his diagnosis on that exam.

After a three-week trial, jurors awarded Navarro, who was 50 at the time, $117-million for economic and pain and suffering damages. Then they ordered the doctors to pay $100.1-million in punitive damages.

Navarro's attorney, Steve Yerrid, said it was the largest jury verdict ever in Florida and the largest in the country that year.

Now the doctors are blaming the attorneys hired by their insurance company, ProNational Insurance, to represent them during Navarro's trial. In the lawsuit, they claim the lawyers were protecting the interests of the insurance company, not them.

For example, Austin said he was pressured by attorneys to say he always gave a patient a physical exam and patient history, even if one was already performed by a physician's assistant. Austin said he was told if that wasn't his testimony, his case would be "indefensible and that he would be looking at a $20-million judgment against him," according to the lawsuit.

But Austin said he didn't perform physicals on patients who had already been seen by a physician's assistant and he did not remember examining Navarro.

Despite Austin's protests, the insurance company's lawyers continued to deny that anyone except Austin was involved with Navarro's care and treatment, according to the suit.

Navarro's attorneys also made several attempts to settle the case, which were all rejected by the insurance company attorneys, the lawsuit said. The doctors said the proposed settlements were never adequately explained to them.

They accuse the attorneys of professional negligence, failing to properly advise them, fraudulently concealing information and failing to respond to settlement demands.

They are asking for damages, costs and "such additional relief as this court deems just and proper."

Carrie Weimar can be reached at 813 226-3416 or cweimar@sptimes.com.