Tuesday, June 14, 2011

TOP STORY >> Woman awarded $2.5M in verdict

Special to The Leader

A federal court jury on Tuesday awarded $2.5 million in damages to a California woman who sought treatment for breast cancer from the “medical director” of a former Jacksonville firm who promised to “kill” the disease through the use of lasers.

The jury deliberated for two hours before finding that Marie Antonella Carpenter and Lase Med, Inc., both formerly of Jacksonville, committed fraud, violated Arkansas’ deceptive trade-practices act and were negligent in their dealings with Therese Westphal, 53, of Tarzana, Calif.

Carpenter did not attend the trial, nor did she have a lawyer in the courtroom to represent her or Lase Med Inc. In a videotaped deposition viewed Monday by jurors shortly after the trial began, Carpenter claimed that lasers will kill cancers but cited competition in declining to be more specific about the treatments provided.

“Never in 16 years of practice have I been in a situation where the defendants didn’t show up,” Westphal’s attorney, Will Bond of Jacksonville, told the jury in his closing statement. “They’re essentially thumbing their noses at Arkansas, at the judge and at us. They can’t defend themselves. They have nothing to say. That’s why they’re not here.” The trial was held in the courtroom of U.S. District Judge James Moody.

The website for Lase Med Inc. the past several days has been critical of the Arkansas case, saying the lawsuit was “bogus” and calling Bond, a former state representative from Jacksonville, a “political toadie” for physicians and hospitals.

The jury awarded Westphal $500,000 in compensatory damages and decided Carpenter and Lase Med Inc., formerly of 524 N. First St., should pay another $1 million each in punitive damages.

“We’re not sure about the chances of actually collecting, but the verdict sends the message that she and Lase Med were wrong and that they shouldn’t be taking advantage of people like that,” Bond said later. “We appreciate the jury.”

Westphal was 50 when she was diagnosed with breast cancer in 2007 and came across a brochure for Carpenter and Lase Med of Jacksonville that promised “Star Wars technology” that kills only cancerous cells through the use of lasers and leaves healthy cells alone with minimal side effects. “I felt fortunate. I wanted to believe (in Lase Med). I chose to believe. Maybe I was na├»ve,” she said.

Westphal spent $6,250 for about seven days of laser treatment at the Lase Med office in Jacksonville in November 2008. At the end of treatment, she said Carpenter pronounced her cured.She testified she asked Carpenter if she should continue consultations with physicians after returning home to California. “She told me, ‘As long as you stay away from the doctors, you’ll be fine,’” Westphal said.

Asked by Bond about her condition a few months later, she said, “It (her left breast) was a completely hard mass. The tumor had completely taken over. It was purple.” Alarmed, she contacted Carpenter, who again assured her she was cancer-free, Westphal said.

She has had her left breast removed since then, and she said her chances of recovery from what is now Stage 4 cancer are slim.

Dr. Billy Lynn Tranum, a Little Rock oncologist, testified that the laser treatments as touted by Lase Med Inc. for a large mass of cancerous tissue are “unproven and unreliable” but they can be beneficial against small cancers around the nose, ears and throat because they shrink the tumor, allowing the patient to breathe.

“But they’re of no value for deep-lesion cancers,” such as Westphal’s breast cancer, Tranum said.

Tranum said he believed Westphal had a 75 percent to 90 percent chance of recovery had she received “proper, proven” treatment when she was first diagnosed. She has only a 10 percent chance now because of the growth that has taken place since her Lase Med treatments, he said.

Tranum said he understood why Westphal and others with cancer would seek the Lase Med treatments, because they were advertised as virtually free of side effects and with 100 percent cure rates. “People want to believe,” he said. “She (Carpenter) is very convincing, similar to someone selling oil leases to places that don’t exist or beachfront property at a place that doesn’t exist. They’re snake-oil salesmen.”

Bob Babecka of Powder Springs, Ga., testified that his wife Cindy came to Lase Med in Jacksonville in July 2008 for treatment of breast cancer. After a few days of treatment, “Cindy was told that her cancer was gone, that she was cured,” Babecka said.

The cancer returned less than a year later, even breaking through the skin, Babecka said.

“She (Carpenter) encouraged – told us, actually – not to see an oncologist or other specialist,” he said. “Cindy was in a lot of pain, but Antonella Carpenter said it was just dead tissue.” The Babeckas sought another opinion. “It was a live tumor and had spread all over her torso and later spread to the brain,” he said.

Cindy Babecka died in May 2010.

Diane French of Black Mountain, N.C., testified that she saw Lase Med’s website proclaiming “The Race For The Cure Is Over” after being diagnosed with an early stage of breast cancer.

After two weeks of treatment at the Jacksonville clinic, she said Carpenter showed her an ultrasound and told her, “You can see there’s no blood flow. The tissue is dead. Congratulations, you’re cancer-free.”

French said she’s now in Stage 4. “It’s incurable,” she said.

Shortly before Westphal’s lawsuit was filed, Lase Med Inc., of Jacksonville moved out of Arkansas. It reportedly is operating in Oklahoma.