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The Orange County Register (California)

Embattled surgeon wins case

A jury decides Dr. Israel Chambi wasn't negligent in case of leaking post-op spinal fluid.

by CHRIS KNAP, The Orange County Register
December 20, 2003

An Orange County Superior Court jury decided Friday that a Santa Ana neurosurgeon was not negligent in his treatment of a Temecula woman left with spinal fluid leaking into her neck after two failed back surgeries.

The case involved Dr. Israel Chambi's treatment of Diane LaLonde, 51, of Temecula.

Chambi was the subject of an Orange County Register investigation in May that detailed 11 years of allegations of malpractice, including allegations of unnecessary surgery and wrongful death.

Chambi's privileges at Western Medical Center Santa Ana, where LaLonde's surgeries took place, were suspended in September after the hospital hired a doctor to review his competence.

The hospital has declined to detail the reasons for his suspension.

He also is under investigation by the Medical Board of California, a spokesman for the board has confirmed.

Doctors testified during the trial that Chambi failed to diagnose a calcified ligament pressing against LaLonde's spine and subsequently performed the wrong operation on her in May 2001.

When she worsened, her arm partially paralyzed, Chambi operated again.

The repairs he performed failed, according to medical records and testimony by doctors.

Spinal fluid leaked into her neck, and her breathing became impaired.

She was rushed to a hospital by ambulance, where doctors found that a surgical screw and plate had dislodged. Doctors cut open her neck to enable her to breathe.

Chambi's attorney, John Kelly, acknowledged during the trial that his client didn't notice the calcified ligament when he examined her before the first surgery. Kelly showed that other doctors had also missed the diagnosis.

''Dr. Chambi is not held to a standard of perfection,'' Kelly told the jury. ''He is not necessarily negligent because of an error in judgment.''

Court records show Chambi has been sued 39 times on allegations of malpractice, wrongful death and performing unnecessary surgery.

The jury in this case wasn't told about the other accusations, Chambi's loss of privileges at Western Medical or the fact that in 1995, doctors at UCI Medical Center terminated him as a professor after accusing him of incompetence.

Superior Court Judge Robert S. Gallivan ruled that history irrelevant to the current trial and possibly prejudicial.

''The only reason that we lost was that the judge refused to let in relevant material evidence... He just cut the gut out of the case,'' said Nathaniel Friedman, attorney for LaLonde. ''There is no way this jury would have found for him if they knew he had lost his privileges.''

Ten patients have sued Chambi, winning a total of more than $3 million. Nine of those recoveries were out-of-court settlements. Chambi has won seven of the nine cases that went to trial.

In one of the two he did not win, waitress Kerry Cooper won a $1.8 million verdict. Her lawyer, Thom as Rowley, was able to introduce testimony about previous allegations of incompetence in the 2002 trial. Chambi's lawyers are appealing the amount of that award.

In the other trial Chambi did not win, in 1996, Rowley won a $99,000 settlement for Benjamin Hallmark after he obtained hospital records contradicting Chambi's testimony. The defense halted that trial and settled the case, records show.

The LaLonde case had echoes of several previous cases filed against Chambi.

In 1993, Orange County psychiatrist Bruce Danto sued Chambi and UCI hospital, alleging that Chambi incorrectly placed a surgical plate in his neck, paralyzing him. Danto went to doctors at UCLA, who removed the plate, allowing him to walk again, according to his daughter, Susan. UCI settled the case by paying Danto $150,000, public records show.

In 2000, Raul Lopez of Anaheim sued Chambi for leaving fluid leaking into his body after back surgery -- in this case blood from a nicked artery. Lopez testified that the internal bleeding caused his back to turn black from his shoulders to his waist and one leg to swell to twice normal size.

Kelly also won a verdict for Chambi in the Lopez case.

Kelly said Friday that a complication that arises from a surgery -- such as LaLonde's leaking spinal fluid or Lopez's internal bleeding -- is generally not enough for a jury to find negligence.

"Medicine is not black and white,'' Kelly said. ''Complications can occur in the best hands and under the best of circumstances.''

Jamie Court, director of the Foundation for Taxpayer and Consumer Rights, said that if juries are not allowed to hear evidence bearing on a doctor's credibility -- such as details of legal verdicts or discipline by hospitals -- they will tend to believe the doctor over the plaintiff.

"It shows how the legal and the regulatory systems aren't working for the consumer,'' Court said.

Patients complain that the court system does not provide justice.

Lynne and Mark Levy sued Chambi in 2001, alleging that he misdiagnosed her and performed the wrong surgery.

Chambi told Levy that her pain was caused by a narrowing of the spine, and operated on her back.

After the operation, as her pain increased, another doctor found a sarcoma -- or cancer -- the size of a baseball pressing against her spine.

Chambi's lawyers admitted that Chambi missed the cancer, but noted that other doctors had made the same mistake. Her pain and loss of quality of life were caused by the cancer, they argued, not anything Chambi did or didn't do. The jury found for Chambi.

''In Orange County, the medical profession wins through on these things,'' said Mark Levy. ''The fact that we didn't win our case -- it was ridiculous how it went down. I would never, ever, take a doctor to court again.''

Today Chambi practices at Tustin Medical Center.
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