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Nellis Air Force pilot awarded $10M in damages over wrist surgery

Updated December 20, 2019 - 9:20 am

U.S. Air Force Maj. Stephen Rohrbacher could only describe his reaction as “shocked” when an X-ray in 2016 revealed that, rather than shaving down a bone spur on his left wrist as promised, a Las Vegas surgeon had removed one of the bones entirely.

A jury awarded Rohrbacher, a 39-year-old Air Force pilot and flight instructor, more than $10 million in damages Wednesday on claims of fraud and battery against Dr. Jonathan Sorelle of the Minimally Invasive Hand Institute.

“What’s so despicable about what this doctor did is he had a patient in front of him whose career requires good use of the hand and wrist,” Rohrbacher’s attorney, Dan Carvalho said, “and he engaged in an unnecessary surgery that put him in a worse position than he was before he came in.”

Neither Sorelle nor the hand institute responded to requests for comment, but in court, Sorelle stood by his decisions and his handiwork.

In their answer to the initial lawsuit filing in 2017, his attorneys wrote that Sorelle and his staff “used reasonable care and diligence in the exercise of this skill and application of this learning, and at all times acted in accordance with their best medical judgment.”

Rohrbacher went to the institute with concerns over the pain he occasionally felt in his left wrist while weightlifting. Sorelle X-rayed both hands and told Rohrbacher that not only did he need surgery to shave down a bone spur on his left wrist, but the right wrist required surgery as well.

He declined the right wrist surgery but went forward with the procedure to remove the bone spur from his left scaphoid bone.

Damage discovered

“When I woke up from surgery I remember looking at my hand, and I remember being in a lot more pain than I thought was really necessary for what we talked about,” Rohrbacher said.

The surgical dressing was removed a few days later, revealing a ragged 3-inch scar across the top of his wrist. He didn’t see the damage until about a month later, when an Air Force occupational therapist X-rayed his wrist before starting physical therapy.

“I remember how she said it. She asked me, ‘You know he removed the whole thing, right?’ ” Rohrbacher said. “I will never forget the face she made to me when she saw my reaction. It was just shock. We were shocked.”

Rohrbacher signed on with the Air Force in 2003, soon after he discovered that people who had previously undergone eye surgery could become pilots.

“I always wanted to fly,” he said. “I remember running around with model airplanes, posters all over my room, airplane stuff. It was something I just always wanted to do, but I didn’t have the eyes for it.”

When Rohrbacher saw his chance, he met with recruiters and took out a $3,000 loan for corrective surgery. He made it into the pilot training program and earned his wings on Dec. 19, 2009.

Expert witness

Rohrbacher’s attorney, Dan Carvalho, brought in Brown University hand surgeon Arnold-Peter Weiss, who testified that removing the bone destabilized the structure of Rohrbacher’s wrist, and would inevitably require a second and far more expensive surgery to repair.

Carl Williams, another Las Vegas hand surgeon who had advised Rohrbacher simply to cut back on weightlifting before he went to Sorelle for surgery, testified that most surgeons would never have offered Rohrbacher any kind of surgical procedure due to his age and occupation.

Carvalho said that through their research on the case, they discovered that Rohrbacher’s was the only documented case of a surgeon removing the scaphoid bone in such a procedure.

“What the evidence in this case revealed was that rather than give the patient advice that’s in their best interest, this physician looked at the patient as a financial opportunity,” Carvalho said.

Rohrbacher went to a different surgeon to repair the damage, but it required fusing his remaining wrist bones together, limiting his range of motion.

A jury awarded Rohrbacher $2.4 million in damages and an additional $8 million in punitive damages. Despite the slight decrease in wrist dexterity, Rohrbacher can still fly and was able to return to work training pilots at Nellis Air Force Base.

After he retires from the military, Rohrbacher said, he hopes to keep flying as a commercial pilot.

Contact Max Michor at mmichor@reviewjournal.com or 702-383-0365. Follow @MaxMichor on Twitter.

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