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Jury awards victims $24 million in hepatitis C trial

One of the state’s leading insurers, Health Plan of Nevada, “acted in bad faith regarding its obligation to provide insurance coverage” to patients, a Clark County jury found Thursday.

The jury awarded a total of $24 million to three people, two of whom contracted hepatitis C at a facility operated by Dr. Dipak Desai, the central figure in the 2008 outbreak of the disease.

Robert Eglet, attorney for two of the plaintiffs, said he expects to ask for an additional $1 billion in punitive damages today. If granted, that would be the largest such award in Nevada history, he said.

A $350,000 Nevada malpractice liability cap for doctors doesn’t apply to insurance companies.

During the two-month civil trial before District Judge Timothy C. Williams, Eglet, who represents Bonnie Brunson, 70, and her husband, Carl, 71, pointed out that in 1992, HPN dropped Desai from its network of doctors because of quality concerns, only to reinstate him five years later because of his high- volume, low-price bid.

“In order to make any money, he had to do colonoscopies in three or four minutes –– missing tumors and cancers –– when a colonoscopy usually takes 30 minutes or more,” Eglet said after the jury delivered the verdict. “And HPN knew that and they didn’t care. They put profit over patient safety. They knew he was a dangerous doctor.”

The eight-member jury awarded Bonnie Brunson $12 million and her husband $3 million for loss of consortium, or regular marital relations. Eglet hugged Bonnie Brunson, then her husband.

“It’s been eight long years… oh God,” wept Carl Brunson.

“I’m overwhelmed,” Bonnie Brunson said.

During the trial, Brunson testified that she withdrew from the bedroom she shared with her husband for fear of passing the disease to him. She said she went through a full year of agonizing treatment, with the doctor at one point advising her to stop for fear of stroke.

Wanting to rid the infection from her body, Bonnie Brunson continued with the treatment that is akin to the worst kind of chemotherapy for cancer. She is now considered cured.

Helen Meyer, whose attorney was Will Kemp, was awarded $9 million.

“I’m just so happy it’s over,” the 76-year-old woman said as Kemp held her.

Lee Roberts, an attorney for HPN, said he will not discuss the case until the jury rules on punitive damages. In trying to pin the blame on Desai and not the insurer, HPN attorneys said during the trial that the insurer was unaware of any professional shortcomings of Desai or his colleagues before hiring them, arguing that HPN “did not instruct them how to perform endoscopy procedures or administer anesthesia.”

“We are disappointed but not surprised by this verdict —given the volumes of essential evidence the jury was blocked from hearing during this trial,” said HPN spokesman Tyler Mason in a statement. “We look forward to presenting our case on appeal.”

In 2011, Eglet and Kemp won hundreds of millions in civil judgments against drug companies they blamed for recklessly supplying large 50-milliliter vials of the anesthetic propofol to Desai’s clinics. Ten to 20 milliliter doses are common for outpatient colonoscopy cases.

Health investigators traced the infections of Brunson, Meyers and at least seven other patients to procedures at endoscopy clinics owned by Desai. In early 2008, the outbreak became public when the Southern Nevada Health District notified more than 50,000 people to get tested for blood-borne diseases, including hepatitis and HIV.

Desai is scheduled for trial on criminal charges, including second-degree murder, in District Court later this month, and in federal court in May. But Desai’s attorneys have said in recent weeks he suffered another stroke –– a condition that previously delayed court proceedings.

A key figure in the case against HPN was Dr. Charles Cohan, a former Las Vegas physician. His deposition testimony revealed that he had warned the insurer about: Desai’s fraudulent charges for hourlong exams that took five minutes; a failure to detect cancerous tumors or ulcers; an altered record to cover up diagnosis failure; and ads falsely reporting Desai’s staff was board certified in gastroenterology.

Cohan’s professional concern with Desai began shortly after he began practicing here in 1994, when a string of patients unhappy with Desai’s care came to him for help. The more Cohan heard, the more concerned he became about the welfare of patients who saw Desai. Desai’s bragging to other doctors about doing colonoscopies in less than five minutes worried Cohan.

Cohan tried to warn the Nevada State Board of Medical Examiners about Desai, bringing complaints against the physician. But Desai was the head of the screening committee, and the board didn’t force him to recuse himself.

In 1999, Cohan and his wife and child left Las Vegas for Pennsylvania after receiving a phone call from a man who said the lives of everyone in his family were in jeopardy if he didn’t stop agitating against Desai.

Cohan doesn’t know who was behind the call.

What was clearly proved in the jury verdicts against HPN, Eglet said, is people don’t want insurance companies who care more about money than patients.

Contact reporter Paul Harasim at pharasim@reviewjournal.com or 702-387-2908

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