Professional wrestler Hulk Hogan claims in a medical malpractice lawsuit that a Florida-based surgery company that advertises on the Internet and television persuaded him to undergo a half-dozen “unnecessary and ineffective” spinal operations, worsening his back problems.
Hogan, whose real name is Terry G. Bollea, seeks $50 million for lost work opportunities during a 19-month period when he was a patient at Laser Spine Institute, according to the lawsuit filed today in Florida state court in Clearwater.
Professional Wrestler Hulk Hogan. Photographer: Paul Kane/Getty Images
The for-profit institute, based in Tampa, bills itself as one of the largest outpatient spine centers in the world, once touted Hogan as a success story in its marketing materials.
Hogan alleges his name was used without his permission and that in March 2011, his lawyer ordered the spine center to stop using his likeness. He said a quote attributed to him in a marketing brochure came from a photo he signed as a personal favor to a Laser Spine employee on the day of his first surgery.
In an e-mailed statement, the institute declined to discuss Hogan’s allegations. Laser Spine “cares about its patients and their outcomes, and is proud to have helped thousands of patients achieve a better quality of life,” the company said in the statement.
The wrestler said in his lawsuit that he became aware that the surgeries he underwent at Laser Spine may have been unnecessary or performed negligently after reading a 2011 Bloomberg News report that detailed complaints that the care offered at the center is expensive and ineffective.
The Laser Spine Institute is one of a growing number of high-volume, doctor-owned surgery centers that recruit patients through sophisticated direct-marketing campaigns on Google Inc.’s search site and others. More recently, the center began a national television advertising campaign with spots on cable news operator CNN. It also conducts seminars in hotel meeting rooms across the country.
The center promises patients a less-invasive, technologically advanced option to major back surgery. It has to include outpatient facilities in Philadelphia; Scottsdale, Arizona, and Oklahoma City. Laser Spine’s website says it performs more than 400 surgeries per month and employs 450 people.
Hogan alleges he was unaware that the institute doctor who urged him to have surgery there also had a substantial ownership interest in the center. He said his health insurer was billed “multiple six figure sums” for the procedures.
Bloomberg reported the for-profit center generated a 34.3 percent profit margin from 2006 through 2009.
The wrestler was scheduled to have a more traditional back surgery — known as anterior inter-body fusion — at a local hospital when a friend told him he should consider the Laser Spine Institute, according to the lawsuit. The founder of the institute, James St. Louis, was a neighbor of Hogan’s on a street of multimillion-dollar homes in Belleair, Florida, near St. Petersburg.
Hogan says he stopped in at the Laser Spine Institute without an appointment and met with St. Louis. He said the doctor talked him out of getting surgery at the hospital and instead persuaded him to undergo less invasive measures at the outpatient center.
His complaint echoes the experience of several other patients interviewed by Bloomberg News as well as allegations made in more than a dozen other malpractice complaints against the facility or its doctors.
Hogan says he underwent six procedures over the next 19 months, getting short-term relief of two to three weeks after each one. The temporary alleviation of symptoms was the result of doctors there using a laser to burn nerves that eventually regenerate, he says in the complaint.
He claims in the lawsuit that the procedures performed at Laser Spine Institute are of limited benefit and unable to correct his back problems, including scoliosis, or the abnormal curving of the spine; spondylolisthesis in which vertebrae slip out of position; and spinal stenosis, a condition in which the spinal column narrows.
Laser Spine’s marketing campaign is intended to “scare” patients away from more traditional treatments while failing to tell them that its procedures only temporarily treat symptoms, Hogan alleges in his complaint.
After his treatment at Laser Spine failed, Hogan eventually underwent the traditional fusion surgery performed by doctors at the University of South Florida. His lawsuit says he was able to return to his professional activities three months after the December 2010 fusion surgery.
The case is Terry G. Bollea v. Laser Spine Institute LLC, 13-389CI021, Circuit Court of Pinellas County (Clearwater, Florida).