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HMO, doctors sued over death

A man dies days after going blind in one eye. The seriousness of his condition was neglected, the suit contends.


© St. Petersburg Times, published September 22, 2000

NEW PORT RICHEY -- The family of a 41-year-old father of four who suddenly went blind in one eye and died days later of a massive brain hemorrhage is suing a network of local doctors and an HMO, alleging that the man might have lived had his case been treated with the urgency it demanded.

According to the complaint, filed Wednesday in Pasco Circuit Court, Gary Houck awoke in his New Port Richey home on June 29, 1998, with no vision in his left eye.

He had been having headaches for about a month, and Houck's primary care physician, Dr. Angelo Cappiello, told him to go to the nearest emergency room, the lawsuit states.

At Community Hospital of New Port Richey, Houck told Dr. David Minkoff about the headaches and said he went from blurry vision to total blindness overnight. Minkoff examined Houck for 10 minutes and then discharged him with a referral to see an ophthalmologist, according to the complaint.

Houck went straight to the office of Dr. Frederick Hauber, who suspected that the reason for the sudden blindness was neurological, the complaint states. Hauber wrote Houck a referral to see a neurologist and get a CT scan. But Houck's HMO, HIP Health Plan of Florida, did not immediately authorize the CT scan or the visit to a neurosurgeon, so for the second time that day he called Cappiello, his primary care physician.

He made an appointment to see Cappiello in two days. But less than 24 hours later, Houck was brain dead. He had suffered a massive brain hemorrhage.

The lawsuit alleges that Houck died because the doctors he saw did not give him the attention he needed and failed to communicate the seriousness of the situation to each other or to Houck's HMO.

"As a direct and proximate result of (the defendants') negligence . . . Gary Houck's true medical condition went undiagnosed and untreated, resulting in his subsequent death," the lawsuit states.

The suit seeks in excess of $15,000 from Minkoff, Cappiello, Hauber, Community Hospital of New Port Richey, and HIP Health Plan of Florida.

Houck's wife, Kelly, declined to comment Thursday. Cappiello also declined to speak with a reporter. Minkoff and Hauber could not be reached.

Minkoff was a defendant in the high-profile wrongful death lawsuit filed by the family of Lisa McPherson, a member of the Church of Scientology. Minkoff, also a Scientologist, pronounced McPherson dead after she was brought, severely dehydrated, to a Pasco hospital in December 1995.

Minkoff eventually settled his part of the lawsuit.

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