St. Petersburg Times
HUDSON — A Pasco County spinal surgeon whose patented techniques have resulted in numerous malpractice lawsuits over the years has been ordered to pay nearly $12 million to a couple who claimed a series of unnecessary operations left the husband unable to walk.
Dr. Alfred O. Bonati, who owns the glass-walled Bonati Institute near U.S. 19 in Hudson, could also be on the hook for more money, as an arbitration panel agreed that the case warranted punitive damages.
The decision, issued Saturday, stemmed from a lawsuit filed in 2004 by William and Gloria Clark, who alleged that the doctor duped the couple into performing eight unnecessary, expensive and increasingly dangerous surgeries on William Clark — which left him unable to walk eight years later and in constant, agonizing pain. Clark, now 71, is a retired General Electric executive who first came to Bonati in 2002 complaining of back pain. Bonati’s practice charged him nearly $175,000 for services, according to court papers.
The Clarks, who were from Pensacola, now live in Kentucky.
“He’s permanently disabled,” said Tampa attorney Steven Yerrid, who represented the Clarks. “He might be able to go a short distance with a walker. His movements are mainly relegated to scooters and wheelchair.”
The case ended up before a three-member arbitration panel because Bonati required Clark to waive his right to a jury trial at the time he was treated, Yerrid said.
Bonati and the Clarks each chose one panel member. The third member, former chief judge James Case of the 6th Judicial Circuit, was chosen by the other panelists. The same panel will consider punitive damages.
Bonati’s representatives did not respond to a request for comment Thursday.
Yerrid said Bonati attributed Clark’s problems to his 1999 diagnosis of Parkinson’s disease. Yerrid acknowledged the disease but maintained the surgeries were to blame.
Bonati, who has no hospital privileges, has been the target of lawsuits since the early 1990s. Many originate from the same attorney, Gary Roberts of West Palm Beach, prompting Bonati’s spokesman to accuse Roberts of having a vendetta.
In 1996, Roberts won a $3.5 million judgment against Bonati and his Hudson medical practices. A 29-year-old Hernando County woman told the jury that Bonati and his clinics performed unnecessary and risky surgeries in a scheme to collect insurance money.
The jury found against Bonati, but the doctor declared bankruptcy during the trial. The judgment was later overtured by a U.S. magistrate who said it was “grossly excessive and without support in the evidence.”
The Hernando woman’s complaint and a number of other malpractice claims against Bonati ended in 2001 with an $8 million court settlement. The doctor admitted no liability, and his patients dropped their complaints.
In the meantime, the Florida Board of Medicine investigated numerous complaints against Bonati. He reached a deal with the board in 2002 that let him continue to practice under the supervision of another surgeon.
That ended in 2005, and the Florida Department of Health said the doctor has fulfilled all his obligations to the state.
Last year a Michigan woman sued in federal court, saying he performed 13 surgeries on her in seven months and kept her at a private condominium for six weeks after a botched operation.
Bonati’s representatives said he and his staff have successfully performed 35,000 operations during the course of his practice. His Web site includes testimonials from patients praising his work.
Bonati is the founder of the Bonati Institute, a practice that specializes in minimally invasive back surgery. Bonati’s Web site says he uses patented tools and techniques for outpatient operations that require local anesthesia.
A check of any pending complaints shows Bonati’s record is clear, and his license is active.