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Saturday, February 2, 2002


  Lawsuits Mount for Lasik

Sandy Keller had simply wanted to correct her nearsightedness and stop wearing contact lenses when she had laser eye surgery in September 1999. Instead, she ended up suing her surgeon and optometrist, claiming that a botched surgery left her with damage so severe she may eventually need corneal transplants.

The case was settled for $260,000 this last fall. "But no amount of money is going to fix this," says the 42-year-old Torrance woman, who now uses an arsenal of medications in her eyes just to get through the day.

Patients unhappy with the results of Lasik surgery are increasingly suing doctors and clinics for compensation, complaining that the procedure actually worsened their vision and, in the most extreme cases, left them legally blind. The settlements are encouraging attorneys to pursue additional cases, even as they shed light on the procedure's risks. Five recent lawsuits generated judgments in the million-dollar range, and at least 200 other cases are in the pipeline, according to Washington, D.C., attorney Aaron M. Levine, chairman of the American Trial Lawyers Assn.'s Lasik litigation group.

A Buffalo, N.Y., man, for instance, won a $1.2-million verdict against the doctor and center where he had Lasik surgery after his eye was lacerated so badly that he is now virtually blind without corrective lenses. And a Kentucky jury awarded a 38-year-old woman a record $1.7 million after four laser surgeries left her legally blind in her left eye.

Lasik, now the most common elective surgery in the United States, is a $2.4-billion-a-year industry, according to Market Scope, a St. Louis-based newsletter that tracks the eye surgery business. More than 4.5 million Americans have had their vision corrected with lasers since 1996.

Several factors have fueled the upswing in the number of lawsuits. First, there's always a time lag between when a procedure becomes popular and when problems emerge. Lasik, for example, didn't become widely available until the late '90s. Lawyers were reluctant to take the cases because they weren't knowledgeable about the surgery and because it's difficult to prove damages when there is no objective test to verify a patient's complaints. "How do you prove your vision's worse or you're getting spots in your eyes?" says Paul J. Martinek, editor of Lawyers Weekly USA in Boston.

It also takes time for these claims to wend their way through the legal system. But the recent judgments have showed that these cases are winnable, and lawyers have come up to speed on the potential complications, which has paved the way for more lawsuits. "There's now a definite momentum," says Levine, who adds that he receives at least one call a week from an unhappy Lasik patient.


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