Thursday, October 27, 2011

Lessons to be learned from 1992 dental malpractice and murder case

$1.6 Million Awarded to 13 Patients of Convicted Dentist


Thirteen patients of a Costa Mesa dentist who was convicted in 1984 of murdering three patients were awarded $1.6 million in damages Wednesday to be paid by a state insurance association, according to their attorney.

Dr. Tony Protopappas was convicted of three counts of second-degree murder after two women and a teen-age girl died during a five-month period from lethal doses of general anesthesia he administered during routine dental work. He is serving a 15-year term at a state prison.

The $1 million in damages and $600,000 in interest awarded Wednesday is in addition to $500,000 the plaintiffs were awarded from insurers in 1987, said their attorney, William Humphreys of the Santa Ana law firm of Horton, Barbaro & Reilly.

After Protopappas' arrest, his dental firm as well as his insurance company went bankrupt, so the claims were sent to the California Insurance Guaranty Assn., which is a statewide fund created by insurers to handle claims of companies that go bankrupt.

The case dragged on so long because of complications involving the bankrupt insurance company, the large amount of the damages and disputes over policy limits, Humphreys said. The association paid the original $500,000, but had refused to pay the additional $1 million, he said.

The ruling by Superior Court Judge James J. Alfano in Fullerton resolved the lawsuit that began a decade ago. The insurance association, however, could appeal. An attorney representing the association was unavailable for comment Wednesday.

The 13 patients include the three who died, so their estates will receive a large part of the award. The others have suffered chronic medical problems, including nerve damage around their teeth, and they will receive smaller amounts, Humphreys said.

A UCLA graduate, Protopappas had operated his high-volume dental clinic from 1974 until the deaths in 1982 and 1983.

Protopappas was accused of administering anesthesia in high doses he knew were unsafe and then deliberately delaying calling paramedics when complications arose. Prosecutors said he used anesthesia in large doses in order to control patients and rush a large number through his office.

One of the patients died only days after another one had suffered similar complications and was still in a coma in a hospital.

His three victims were Kim Andreassen, 23, of Huntington Beach, Patricia Craven, 13, of Sacramento and Cathryn Jones, 31, of Costa Mesa. Protopappas had been told by the doctor of one patient, Andreassen, that she should not be given general anesthesia because she had kidney problems and high blood pressure.

The case led to changes in California's supervision of dentists, including tightening of restrictions on use of general anesthesia during dental work.

More Dental Suits cases from the L.A. Times