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'Big mistake' in oral surgeon's background

Dr. Suzanne McCormick is president of the Dental Board of California. The governor's office didn't know she agreed to a malpractice settlement for taking out two wrong teeth from a 13-year-old boy.

May 26, 2009|Michael Rothfeld

SACRAMENTO — Patients of Dr. Suzanne McCormick can get a glowing picture of her qualifications from the Dental Board of California, where she serves as president. They can learn that the oral surgeon teaches at Loma Linda University, lectures worldwide and has never been professionally disciplined.

What the state licensing agency will not tell consumers is that shortly before she was appointed by Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, McCormick agreed to a $95,000 malpractice settlement for taking out two wrong teeth from a 13-year-old Encinitas boy.

Officials in the office of the governor, who appointed McCormick in early 2006 and gave her a new four-year term in March, said they were unaware of what she had done.

"It was a messed-up deal what she did -- she made a big mistake," said Joey Rossi, now 18, who went to McCormick five years ago to have his wisdom teeth removed and lost two permanent molars instead. "People should know about this if she's the president of the Dental Board."

The mistake by McCormick, 49, who declined to be interviewed, highlights how little information is available to consumers from the agencies that are supposed to protect them. Both the dentist and the board, which took no disciplinary action against her, contributed to keeping the incident secret.

McCormick obtained a "gag clause" during settlement discussions so the boy's lawyer would not file a complaint against her with the board she would soon join, reducing the chances that she would be disciplined.

The Dental Board, which investigates misconduct against its licensees, learned of the incident when McCormick reported the December 2005 malpractice settlement to the state, as legally required. But the board keeps settlement records confidential.

Had the board sanctioned McCormick, consumers could have learned about the incident on the agency's website. But board staff, based on what they called a "cursory review," closed her case a few months after she was appointed. An outside consultant, a Northern California dentist who contacted McCormick but not Rossi or his family, concluded the matter did not warrant punishment, state officials said.

McCormick didn't interfere or receive special treatment, said Amanda Fulkerson, a spokeswoman for the Dental Board, calling the incident "an unfortunate error." McCormick, who state officials say has pioneered an oral surgery technique and provides dental care for poor children abroad, was recently elected board president by her peers.

Today, the only public evidence of Rossi's ordeal is in a file at San Diego County Superior Court.

Fulkerson said that if the Dental Board disclosed anything about the incident or the settlement, McCormick could sue. "We want to . . . provide as much information as possible to consumers, if the law allows for that," she said.

State boards that license nurses and social workers, who are governed by the same laws, have released malpractice settlement records upon request.

"Our policy is that sharing relevant information with consumers so that they can make decisions is part of what we do," said Paul Riches, executive officer of the Board of Behavioral Sciences in Sacramento.

Julianne D'Angelo Fellmeth, who directs the Center for Public Interest Law at the University of San Diego School of Law, said taxpayers, who foot the bill for state courts, are entitled to information about malpractice cases, "especially information regarding the competence of licensed professionals."

"The boards should not be in the business of hiding information from the public," Fellmeth said.

Rossi went to McCormick after his pediatric dentist recommended removing all four wisdom teeth -- which weren't yet poking out of his gums -- in preparation for braces. Everything seemed to go as planned, he said. McCormick did not tell him anything was wrong until he arrived for a follow-up appointment six days later.

"She walked in and she said, 'I took out the wrong teeth,' " Rossi recalled. "She didn't really say much. She said, 'Sorry.' "

Rossi's mother, Danna Laakman, said McCormick had an "excellent reputation." But she never offered an explanation. "I looked her dead in the eye and she just admitted that she made a mistake, and she broke down crying," Laakman said.

Her son, then an eighth-grader, was "totally traumatized," she said.

Several dentists said in interviews that it was unusual to remove wisdom teeth from someone Rossi's age, and they couldn't imagine how McCormick could have mistaken permanent molars for wisdom teeth.

"I've never made that mistake, and I would say the vast majority of dentists probably have the exact same track record," said Jay Grossman, a West Los Angeles dentist who has practiced for 21 years.

Board officials said McCormick was negligent, but because it was a single instance and she had a clean record previously, nothing was done. In addition, the patient wasn't asking for discipline.

Julie Parker, Rossi's attorney, said she normally complains to state boards on behalf of clients but did not because of the gag clause.

Such provisions are illegal for medical doctors, but Schwarzenegger twice vetoed legislation that would have outlawed them for other professions.

Fellmeth said licensees use these clauses to short-circuit the regulatory process that protects the public.

"They should not," she said, "be able to deprive their regulators of information about their own misconduct."


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