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A local surgical institute pays big in a negligence case 

Following a three-year civil case and a two-week-long trial in the San Luis Obispo County Superior Court, a Pismo Beach ambulatory surgical center will pay out more than half a million dollars to a Central Coast man for negligence.

Coastal Surgical Institute is a facility that offers general and specialized surgery procedures for patients who don’t require admission to a hospital. It includes a full-service operating room and recovery center and is owned in part by Dignity Health—formerly Catholic Healthcare West, which operates French Hospital in San Luis Obispo and Arroyo Grande Community Hospital. Dignity Health owns a majority share in the facility; other stakeholders include the 21 physicians on staff, according to its website.

On Dec. 13, a jury handed down a verdict in the case of Charles Blevins, 66, naming Coastal Surgical Institute liable for negligence after Blevins suffered a bacterial infection following knee surgery.

According to court records and evidence presented at trial, Blevins underwent arthroscopic surgery on his right knee at the institute on Sept. 1, 2010. On Sept. 4, he contacted his doctor to report severe pain and a fever. He went to the emergency room at Sierra Vista Regional Medical Center and underwent more surgery and antibiotic therapy.

Staffers later learned that three other people who had undergone surgeries had also been infected with what was later determined to be pseudomonas aeruginosa bacteria. An investigation launched by doctors found that the institute didn’t know if there were any commonalities between the instruments used in the surgeries because the facility didn’t maintain quality control records identifying which instrument was used on which patient.

During the trial, jurors heard from Dr. Otto Schueckler, who performed Blevins’ operation, and who testified that he took it on trust that the instruments he used were fully sterilized.

The verdict awarded Blevins more than $543,000 for pain and suffering and past and future monetary loss.

“When you go in to have surgery, anywhere you go, you trust that the instruments that are used on you are sterile,” Jeffrey Stulberg, Blevins’ attorney, told New Times.

According to court records, the three other patients exposed to the bacteria are only named as Patients “1,” “2,” and “4.” Due to medical privacy regulations, they weren’t discussed during the proceedings.

“Let’s just say I was unable to ascertain their identities, and [the institute wasn’t] volunteering that information,” Stulberg said. “They professed ignorance.”

The facility hasn’t experienced any similar incidents of infection since 2010.

The facility’s attorney, Long Beach-based David Hillings, didn’t return requests for comment. However, Megan Maloney, senior director of communications for Dignity Health and the Coastal Surgical Institute spokesperson, told New Times the facility maintains that the fault lies with the manufacturer of an endozime sponge used to sterilize surgical instruments, and that an appeal is in the works.

“The Coastal Surgical Institute is a leading surgery center on the Central Coast and has an impeccable reputation for providing quality, compassionate service and care. The safety and well being of our patients is our highest priority,” Maloney wrote to New Times via e-mail. “We strongly disagree with the verdict and have every intention of appealing.

“Coastal Surgical Institute provided necessary care and follow up to Mr. Blevins and immediately discontinued use of this product,” she added.

Maloney declined to comment further because of the pending litigation.

Stulberg said that since 2010, Blevins has had two additional surgeries and a complete knee replacement in May 2012. He remains unable to walk more than four blocks, the lawyer added.

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