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DENTAL DANGERS: Dentist’s malpractice claims span three decades

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DENTAL DANGERS: Dentist’s malpractice claims span three decades

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Over a span of three decades in courthouses across Southern California, more than a dozen dental malpractice lawsuits have been filed against Bakersfield prosthodontist Robert Tupac in courthouses across Southern California. The allegations are extensive.

Rachel Cook wrote this story for the Bakersfield Californian as a 2013 California Health Journalism Fellow. Earlier articles in this series can be found here:

DENTAL DANGERS: How the Dental Board of California investigates dentists

DENTAL DANGERS: Local dentist's invisible complaint file underscores dental board's shortcomings

The Bakersfield office of Dr. Robert Tupac. (Photo by Felix Adamo / The Californian)
The Bakersfield office of Dr. Robert Tupac. (Photo by Felix Adamo / The Californian)
Sunday, July 20, 2014

Over a span of three decades in courthouses across Southern California, more than a dozen dental malpractice lawsuits have been filed against Bakersfield prosthodontist Robert Tupac.

The various plaintiffs, the vast majority of them women, alleged in cases filed from the early 1980s to as recently as last April that Tupac’s dentistry caused them a variety of problems, ranging from bone loss to ongoing pain and emotional distress. Some alleged Tupac yelled at them or did not carry out agreed-upon treatment.

The Californian found 18 small claims cases and civil lawsuits filed over a period of 31 years that alleged some sort of harm. What is known about their outcomes, however, is in most instances limited.

Four cases are still pending in Kern County Superior Court and the Dental Board of California is pursuing its own disciplinary action against Tupac. The state Attorney General’s office, acting on behalf of the board, filed a formal complaint against Tupac alleging that he negligently treated patients, among other misdeeds. A hearing in that matter is scheduled to resume Monday in Los Angeles.

Some case files end with no clear indication of how the disputes were resolved. Other cases indicate settlements, but list no details, financial or otherwise.

Older cases are stored on microfiche tucked away in the Los Angeles County Superior Court archives. Others are scattered throughout courthouses in Santa Monica, Beverly Hills and Ventura County.

The most recent cases were filed last year and this spring in Kern County Superior Court after a Dental Board of California accusation against Tupac made headlines.

Here’s what is known about Tupac’s long list of legal battles:

In the summer of 1983, Betty Blatt, then 71, sued Tupac in Los Angeles County Superior Court alleging ­malpractice. Blatt claimed Tupac “negligently, carelessly and unskillfully” treated her, causing “severe injuries to her teeth, gums, bridges, partials and mouth.” The suit alleged that she discovered Tupac’s “negligent conduct” when she switched doctors after September 1982.

Tupac’s attorney denied Blatt’s claims. The case was referred to arbitration and dismissed in June 1986 after Blatt’s attorney filed a request for dismissal.

Catherine Cassie filed a lawsuit in Los Angeles in the fall of 1987 accusing Tupac of medical negligence, ­negligence, failure to obtain informed consent and negligent supervision. She alleged Tupac improperly tried to put a bridge in her mouth “despite (her) periodontal disease,” knocked out one of her teeth, “left four abscess teeth leading to her sinuses unprotected” and split her lip.

Tupac’s answer refuted Cassie’s allegations, saying she knowingly submitted to treatment that “because of her condition, rendered her susceptible to injury” and that her injuries were caused by “the natural course of a disease or condition and/or the expected result of reasonable treatment.”

The next year, Cassie’s attorneys made a motion to withdraw as her representation, writing that she “failed and refused to cooperate in preparation of the case.” One attorney’s declaration described her as “uncooperative, disruptive, demanding and harassing.”

The case was settled in 1988.

In 1995, Devon Longfield sued Tupac in a Los Angeles County court. Longfield allegedly suffered a “full mouth dental reconstruction (by Tupac) that was negligently performed” and required replacement.

Longfield alleged she was treated by Tupac from May 1988 to October 1993. She said Tupac didn’t secure her “knowledgeable, informed consent” before treating her and negligently placed her bridges, causing her “to suffer permanent dental and medical damage.” She sought general damages for injuries including TMJ issues, damage to her teeth and nervous system, pain and suffering, and “emotional and mental distress.”

In his response to her complaint, Tupac denied he harmed Longfield.

Longfield’s attorney pegged her past dental expenses at $50,000 and her loss of earnings at $40,000. The attorney alleged that Longfield lost about $58,000 in “earning capacity” and would incur about $40,000 in future dental/medical expenses. The case was settled and dismissed in 1996.

Joann Komin sued Tupac in February 1996 in Los Angeles County. She had sought Tupac’s treatment for reconstruction of her whole mouth and crown replacement for her teeth, according to the suit.

From April 1994 to March 1995, Tupac replaced Komin’s crowns, the suit said. The margins of his replacements were not flush and left Komin in “considerable pain.” Her suit also said the work was “not aesthetically acceptable as Dr. Tupac had promised.”

Komin claimed to have paid Tupac more than $28,000 but had to see other dentists because of his “negligence,” according to the suit. The other practitioners told Komin the only way to deal with the pain and flaws of Tupac’s work was to remove all of the crowns he put on her teeth and replace them with new ones, the suit said.

Komin paid $18,000 to start fixing Tupac’s “mistakes,” case filings said.

Among other issues, Komin’s suit also claimed Tupac yelled at her while she was in the dental chair on a visit in February 1995 and demanded she pay $6,000 he claimed she owed him.

“Dr. Tupac’s screaming and yelling at (Komin) and his forceful demand was intentional, (and) was, in view of the fact that he was providing her treatment at that very moment, wholly unreasonable and outrageous,” the suit said.

Tupac’s attorney rebutted Komin’s allegations, calling them a “hatchet job.”

“There is nothing within (Tupac’s) professional practice history that supports any assertion of the plaintiff that (he) was not competent to perform the treatment rendered,” his attorney countered.

Tupac’s attorney also wrote that Komin left Tupac’s care before the dentist’s work was complete and did not let him cement her final crowns.

The case was dismissed in November 1997, after Komin’s attorney filed a request for dismissal.

Deloris Horwich filed a negligence ­complaint against Tupac in 1997. The suit claimed Horwich visited Tupac in the summer of 1995 for dental work, including preparation and placement of porcelain and gold crowns, and gold inlays and onlays, but his preparation of the dental work did not meet the community’s standard of care.

The suit said problems with Tupac’s work were discovered in August 1996 when Horwich had dental surgery. A hole was found in a surface of one of the crowns and holes hidden by a porcelain overlay were found in metal work of another crown, the suit claimed.

Tupac had allegedly failed to correctly treat Horwich’s other teeth, and she claimed there was decay under coverings he placed. Horwich needed a root canal because of Tupac’s neglect, the report said.

An amended complaint alleged Tupac was “in substantial financial difficulty” because of earthquake damage to his house, “significant legal expenses” and the fact he was performing less work than in previous years. The suit also noted “significant turmoil and change” in office personnel.

The case was dismissed in July 1997 after Horwich’s attorney, Willard D. Horwich, filed a request for dismissal.

Michele Arthur Corns filed a claim against Tupac in May 2006 in Los Angeles small claims court alleging the dentist owed her $4,500 for “physical and emotional pain.” Corns indicated Tupac treated her from January through May 2006. She wrote she had already asked Tupac for $900, plus $1,000 for emotional damages, and that he should pay her $2,222 for additional dental work to repair what he had done.

Her claim did not provide any details about what treatment Tupac provided her.

Corns and Tupac appeared in court on June 14, 2006. A commissioner awarded Corns $960.

In another small claims case, Tupac was ordered to pay Kern County resident Mesonika Piecuch $5,060, plus $105 for costs.

Piecuch alleged that while Tupac treated her from November 2005 through July 2006, he made her “an ill-fitting, painful bridge with an abysmal color match” and became “surly (and) abusive” when Piecuch brought up her concerns. Piecuch sued for the cost of the bridge, which she had removed and replaced with “a wonderful bridge” made by another dentist, the claim said.

Court records show Piecuch appeared before a court commissioner on Aug. 23, 2007, to make her case. Cheryl Tucker — whom court records identify as a registered dental assistant and front desk employee — appeared for Tupac and testified on his behalf.

On Sept. 13, the commissioner awarded Piecuch $5,060, the amount she listed in her claim.

Fay Banks took Tupac to small claims court in Kern County for $3,350 in June 2009, claiming he didn’t deliver dental work he had promised her in writing.

Banks wrote she visited Tupac in October 2008 to fix a lower denture another dentist had changed out from her original, “messing up the lower dental work.”

Banks said Tupac started to work on her in March 2009 after she paid him $3,350 in advance. She wrote that Tupac deviated from what he promised to do and “did what he said would be ‘a better way to fix the problem.’” She alleged Tupac said he would do the work “the original way” if she did not like it, but that he did not follow through.

“I have asked Dr. Tupac many times to do the work he originally said he would do,” Banks wrote. “Later he claimed he could not get the attachment needed, but a woman in his office had already told me the attachment had been received.”

“For the first time in seventeen years of implants, my gums are sore around the original implants and I am afraid the implants are being damaged. After each trip to his office, I come home and the situation is worse.”

Banks said that she needed money so she could travel to see an Oregon dentist who did her original dental work and have damage repaired.

Banks’ suit was dismissed in August 2009, according to a mediated agreement. The agreement stipulated that Tupac would perform “necessary corrective dental work/procedures” by Oct. 31, 2009, for Banks at no charge or refund her $3,350 by Nov. 7. The agreement also stipulated that Tupac pay Banks $74.80 for court costs.

Wendi Brudvik sued Tupac in the ­summer of 2008, alleging his work was “defective.”

Her complaint said Brudvik consulted Tupac at his offices in Beverly Hills from about August 2006 to May 2007 to correct her “congenital affliction of underdeveloped adult teeth.” The complaint claimed Tupac negligently examined, diagnosed and treated Brudvik and negligently designed and installed a fixed partial denture for her that needed to be removed and replaced.

Brudvik’s attorney alleged Tupac’s negligence exacerbated Brudvik’s dental problems and Brudvik had “a lengthy and painful surgical procedure to remove (Tupac’s) defective (fixed partial denture) installation.”

The complaint alleged Tupac “failed to diagnose the deteriorating condition” of one of Brudvik’s teeth, “allowing it to loosen and decay to the point of being non-restorable.” The tooth’s deterioration was discovered when the fixed partial denture was removed in March 2008. The court records don’t say who removed the denture. Brudvik suffered the “extraction and loss of ... one of her few remaining and valuable natural teeth,” the suit said.

The complaint also alleged that when the denture was removed, problems were found with crowns installed on four of her teeth, which had led to “over-contoured crowns with open margins or gaps, leading to a harmful, unhealthful and injurious oral condition.”

Court records filed by Brudvik’s attorney indicated Brudvik paid Tupac $20,000, and that she paid more than $22,000 to remove the denture and “treat unresolved injuries” caused by Tupac.

In response, Tupac and his attorneys argued that the dentist’s work was within the standard of care and that Brudvik ­terminated the doctor-patient relationship before treatment was complete, and thus Tupac could not complete his treatment plan for her.

“Dr. Tupac was available to continue the ongoing process of fitting (Brudvik’s) restorations to accommodate (her) comfort and aesthetics, despite (her) vacillating and increasing demands,” one filing said.

Another dentist, David Eggleston, reviewed Tupac’s records for the defense and wrote that in his opinion, Tupac did not err in his treatment of Brudvik.

Eggleston also noted that Brudvik consulted “numerous dentists” after leaving Tupac and all but one refused to treat her.

Court papers show a settlement was reached in July 2009. Brudvik’s attorney, whom court records also identify as Brudvik’s husband, filed a request for dismissal.

Kern County resident Patricia Ann Hicks sued Tupac for dental negligence in January 2010 in Kern County Superior Court. Her complaint said she visited Tupac’s office from January to April 2008 and he placed implants that were “below the standard of care” because they were too wide for her supporting bone, causing her to lose bone.

The suit said Hicks would need bone grafting and restoration of her upper sinus area because of bone loss, as well as “removal and replacement of multiple failing implants.”

Tupac’s attorney responded in a case management statement that the dentist’s treatment “was within the dental standard of care” and Hicks “suffered no damage as a result of said treatment.”

Hicks’ attorney, Robert McCulloch, filed notice of a settlement in December 2010 and the case was dismissed in January 2011.

Dawn Miller-Colman sued Tupac for ­dental negligence in March 2011 in ­Bakersfield. Tupac treated Miller-Colman from November 2003 to June 2010, according to her complaint.

Miller-Colman alleged that Tupac’s placement of her implants caused “significant bone loss and TMJ symptoms.” The suit said the implants were “malpositioned,” causing “loss of facial and crestal bone width, height and volume bilaterally.”

The suit was also filed by McCulloch and has similar language to Hicks’ complaint.

The suit said Miller-Colman would also need to have implants replaced and removed, bone grafting to restore bone volume, restoration of her upper sinus area due to significant bone loss — which the complaint attributed to “negligently placed implants” — and tissue grafts.

Tupac’s answer to the complaint denied he injured her.

A notice of settlement was filed in May 2012 and the case was dismissed in June.

Sheila Rios, one of the patients at the heart of the Dental Board of California’s accusation against Tupac, sued the ­dentist in October 2008 in Ventura County Superior Court.

Rios’ complaint alleged Tupac’s negligence caused injuries including tooth and bone loss, and “great shock to (her) nervous system caused by improperly recommended, designed and placed implants and implant restorations.”

Tupac treated Rios from November 2005 to February 2008, according to the suit. Rios paid Tupac $50,000 and would spend $175,000 more for “restorative work and bone graft procedures,” according to a case management statement filed by her attorney.

“(Rios) no longer has any teeth, her face is sunken in, (Rios) has lost bone from her jaws and she has constant drainage,” the statement said.

In his own case management statement, Tupac’s attorney wrote that Rios suffered no damage from Tupac’s treatment which “was within the dental standard of care.”

In June 2009, Tupac’s attorney asked for a postponement of dates in the case, writing that Tupac was undergoing cancer treatment out of state, hopefully to be completed by the end of September.

Court minutes from a mandatory settlement conference held Jan. 19, 2010, note a settlement was reached, and Rios’ attorney filed a request for dismissal soon after.

A hearing on the Dental Board’s allegations regarding Tupac’s treatment of Rios is scheduled to resume Monday in Los Angeles.

Maria Koepp sued Tupac in February 2010 in Ventura County for treatment she received between about September 2008 and February 2009. In a complaint worded similarly to Rios’, Koepp alleged she suffered from the “failure of multiple implants and bridgework placed” by Tupac.

In her case management statement, Koepp’s attorney wrote that all of Tupac’s work, which included multiple implants and a fixed restoration connecting them, needed “to be removed and replaced.”

Again, Tupac’s attorney denied the patient suffered damage because of Tupac’s treatment and “all dental treatment provided was within the standard of care,” in a case management statement.

Koepp’s attorney filed a notice of settlement in February 2011 and the case was dismissed in March.

Judy Brown sued Tupac in Ventura ­County in April 2011 for dental ­negligence. Her complaint, filed by McCulloch, said Brown sought treatment from Tupac from May 2007 through March 2008. Her suit alleged Tupac gave her poorly designed restorations that caused “excessive pressure on her front teeth” and Brown would need the “replacement of multiple restorations” because of Tupac’s “negligent dentistry.”

In a case management statement, McCulloch wrote Tupac put five implants and a fixed bridge restoration in Brown’s lower jaw. But he alleged the bridge “was a poorly designed and functionally inferior prosthetic.” In addition to other problems caused by the work, Brown had “ongoing pain in her lower front right implant area,” according to an attachment to a case management statement in the case.

Tupac’s attorney denied Tupac’s work was below the standard of care.

A settlement was reached on Jan. 3, 2013, and Brown’s attorney filed a request for dismissal.

In April 2013, Vanessa Claridge sued Tupac in Bakersfield for medical negligence for treatment he gave her from December 2011 through June 2012. Her complaint provided less detail than other suits, stating Tupac “negligently and carelessly” treated Claridge, 57, causing “injuries and damages,” including injury to her body and nervous system.

Tupac’s answer denied the allegations. Court minutes from a case management conference held on June 30 show that Tupac and Claridge have a “binding arbitration” — which means they are proceeding with a hired arbitrator (instead of a judge or jury) judging and conducting the case by contract — and a case management conference is set for December 2014.

In May 2013, Bonnie Woods sued Tupac for dental negligence in ­Bakersfield. The suit, another filed by McCulloch, said Tupac treated Woods from July to December 2012 and gave her implants and implant supported bridge restorations “below the standard of care.”

The poorly designed restorations caused “disharmony” in how her teeth came together, “significant bone loss” and “excessive drooling and speech difficulties,” the suit alleged. As a result of Tupac’s negligence, Woods would need “removal of malpositioned” implants, “a bone grafting procedure” and implant replacement, the suit claimed.

In later filings, McCulloch alleged Woods’ restorations from Tupac “have fractured multiple times” and Woods would need a lot of work to repair her mouth.

“This re-treatment will be a complex, challenging and time consuming process which will be completed in multiple stages to achieve optimum results,” the statement said.

Tupac’s answer to her complaint denied the allegations. Court records from November indicated the case was heading into arbitration. A case status conference is scheduled for March 2015.

Patricia Freeman sued Tupac in ­October 2013 in Kern County Superior Court. Her complaint, filed by McCulloch, alleged Tupac treated her from April 2008 to March 2010. Her complaint said Tupac gave her poorly designed restorations that “resulted in infection,” bone loss and tooth loss — among other issues — and caused Freeman “pain, infection, bleeding gums, and hot and cold sensitivity.”

“As a result of (Tupac’s) negligent dentistry, (Freeman) has required exploratory surgery due to gum inflammation, extraction of (three teeth), bone grafting procedures, tissue regeneration procedures, placement of three implants and will require replacement of multiple restorations,” the complaint said.

Tupac denied the accusations in an answer to Freeman’s complaint.

“(Tupac) further contends that nothing he did, or failed to do, caused any damage to the plaintiff,” Tupac’s attorney wrote in a case management statement.
A case management conference was held in for April and a mandatory settlement conference wa­­­s scheduled for January 2015.

In April 2014, Carmen Goicoechea sued Tupac in Kern County courts. The suit says Tupac treated Goicoechea from April 2005 through May 2013. The suit alleges Tupac gave Goicoechea implants that were poorly positioned, causing “extensive bone loss, soft tissue damage, pain and suffering.” Goicoechea also alleges Tupac’s “negligent placing” of the dental work he gave her “created an unhygienic environment causing bacterial contamination, inflammation of soft tissue and bone loss.”

“As a direct result of (Tupac’s) failure to properly deliver implants within the standard of care, (Goicoechea) will require the removal and replacement of all implants, as well as reconstruction and restoration of deficient bone volume by way of bone grafting procedures,” the suit said.

The suit seeks damages for injury, pain and suffering, as well as “emotional and psychiatric injuries.”

The suit was filed by Bakersfield attorney Michael Dolan. A proof of service of summons was filed in the case in June.

This article was originally published in the The Bakersfield Californian.