PHOENIX — On April 3, Gregory Law Group of Gilbert officially filed a $100 million class-action lawsuit and a stand-alone $15 million lawsuit in Maricopa County Superior Court that involves several White Mountain people and organizations that were allegedly involved in recruiting patients for surgeries in Mexico.

Some former patients are now involved in a lawsuit, saying the information they received about the surgeries was fraudulent, and the care they received was dangerously negligent.

The case involves people who say they have been injured as a result of weight loss surgery referred to as lap band surgery which they received in Mexico, but was promoted and organized by Arizona residents and companies, some who were based in the White Mountains. Described by many providers as a “quick, minimally invasive surgery,” it comes with inherent risks as do all surgeries.

Justin Blackburn, Jessica Ballandby, Carson Miller and Michelle Stoddart allege they “have suffered significant health problems and complications arising from the surgical procedures itself and/or the aftercare services, including but not limited to, unhealthy weight loss, required corrective surgeries, severe infections, prolonged illness, chronic vomiting and nausea, depression, anxiety, and, in some instances, death.”

Justin Blackburn alleges that his stepmother, Elizabeth “Liz” Erickson, died in 2013 as a result of the poor care she received after the surgery.

Jessica Ballandby lives in Show Low; the other claimants, Justin Blackburn, Michelle Stoddart and Carson Miller all reside in Maricopa County at this time.

The suit seeks, “declaratory and injunction relief, equitable relief and monetary damages,” based on allegations that the defendants “engage in a uniform and fraudulent course of conduct, and they knowingly misrepresent and have knowingly misrepresented the nature, quality, and safety of bariatric procedures. Defendants are also negligent in the hiring, retention, credentialing, and supervision of person who allegedly are qualified to perform bariatric procedures, who, in fact are not,” reads the claim document.

Named in both suits are Summit Healthcare Regional Medical Center, Sandra Brimhall, the estate of the late Kevin Brackney, (former SLUSD Superintendent), Michael Seaman also a former employees of SLUSD, Fill Centers USA, the Heber Women’s Clinic, the Snowflake Medical Clinic, Dr. Mario Almanza and several other corporations involved in the weight loss pipeline that funneled patients to Tijuana for lap band surgery. Patients were charged highly discounted prices when compared to the same surgery performed by licensed surgeons in the United States.

Lap band and gastric sleeve surgery are two examples of the growing popularity of a practice called medical tourism — traveling to another country for medical care. Thousands of Americans travel abroad for care each year, often because treatment is cheaper in another country. Others travel to receive a procedure or therapy not available in the U.S. The most common procedures that people undergo on medical tourism trips include cosmetic surgery, dentistry and heart surgery.

“The gastric band procedure (commonly known as lap band) is a restrictive weight loss surgery. The lap band was FDA approved for the treatment of morbid obesity in 2001 in the United States,” according to ObesityCoverage.com. “Next to gastric bypass surgery, gastric banding is the second most frequently performed bariatric surgery,” explains the site.

The four individuals received lap band surgery which was performed by Dr. Almanza in Tijuana, Mexico. Their stories share a common thread with ties to the White Mountains through their surgery after-care provider, Gwendolyn “Wendy” Hall, a certified nurse midwife affiliated that was practicing under the supervision of Dr. William Lawson of Summit Healthcare Regional Medical Center.

Hall was allegedly treating lap band patients in conjunction with a company called Fill Centers USA, now defunct. According to the official Notice of Claim of the lawsuit, filed last fall, Hall did not have the proper training to conduct the after-care procedures and was not certified for this work.

Hall’s nursing license was revoked by the Arizona Board of Nursing in May, 2017. The Arizona Board of Nursing discovered that Hall was over overprescribing an FDA-controlled amphetamine and placed her on a 10 -month probation under the supervision of Summit Healthcare Regional Medical Center.

“Gwendolyn Hall was still allowed to see weight loss patients, a clear violation of the intent of the probation agreement...” according to the claim.

According to Blackburn, Hall has settled a case for wrongful death related to his stepmother, Elizabeth “Liz” Erickson, who Blackburn says died as a result of the lap band adjustment she received from Hall after her surgery in Mexico.

Another connection to the White Mountains in the lap band lawsuits relates to former Whipple Ranch Elementary School principal, Sandy Brimhall, who apparently worked as a recruiter for Mexican physcians who performed lap band surgery.

She allegedly sent out recruitment emails and consultations via her Show Low Unified School District (SLUSD) email during school hours. The claimants say they have pages of Brimhall’s school emails obtained by Justin Blackburn and his attorney through public records requests. They claim that, in one case a patient’s medical records were sent to Brimhall at her school email address, in violation of federal health privacy laws.

The suit also claims that, over the years, Brimhall brought at least four other SLUSD staff members into the recruitment practice. She was paid for each patient recruited and transported to Dr. Almanza in Tijuana for lap band surgery.

The stand-alone suit filed by Jessica “Jessie” Ballandby alleges violations of A.R.S. 44-1521 through fraud, negligent misrepresentation and negligent supervision. Ballandby, originally interviewed by The Independent in 2015 when the “Notice of Claim” was in process, has since garnered state-wide and national attention though a Phoenix-based news outlet.

To date, no responses have been filed by the parties named in the suits. The Independent has made multiple attempts to contact the named individuals and associated organizations with no response except in the case of Summit Healthcare Regional Medical Center and Show Low Unified School District who both provided official “no comment” statements.

“We had no idea how absolutely unprecedented this class action litigation is because it remains to be seen how many patients were recruited by Brimahall and her local counterparts,” explained claimant Justin Blackburn. “From the second that ABC 15 news ran the story a month ago, we have been inundated with media requests. We have also been contacted by the Baja, California tourism board and the tourism board on both sides of the border,” he added.

“Like any business that is out there, there are good business and bad business, said Blackburn. “We want to know how an elementary school principal was able to run this racket for so long.”

“The women that went down there [for lap band surgery] that were injured did not have a voice until now,” says Robert M. Gregory, Esq., an attorney of the Gregory Law Group representing the claimants.

“My office is getting flooded with calls since Jessica “Jessie” Ballandby appeared on the Phoenix news in April,” explained Gregory. A Florida news station now wants to file the same lawsuit as Ballandby, Blackburn, Miller and Stoddart said Gregory. “...The media have given a voice to people that have been injured. A year or two from now, I honestly believe that there will be five to 10 class actions suits around the US,” assures Gregory.

Since Ballandby’s appearance on Phoenix station ABC15 Arizona, she, Justin Blackburn and Carson Miller via their attorney, have received overwhelming support and outreach from people who have had similar experiences with bariatric surgery done south of the border.

Since then, their story has garnered national attention. Ballandby, Blackburn and Miller appeared on NBC’s Today Show with Meghan Kelley on Thursday, May 24, to further share their experiences. On the show they discussed how the lawsuit focuses on those that recruited them and other groups on individuals to travel to Tiajuana, Mexico for the significantly reduced cost procedure.

Ballandby gave a first-hand account of how her spleen was allegedly nicked and her stomach left open, eventually causing her system to become septic.

Blackburn emphasize how the recruiters allegedly didn’t provide full disclosure about the risks, the aftercare and long-term side effects that some experience.

“I regret doing the lap-band surgery,” said Carson on the Today Show. “I want people to know that there are other options. Do your research. There are healthier ways to lose weight safely.”

Reach the reporter at lsingleton@wmicentral.com

Laura Singleton is a reporter for the White Mountain Independent, covering Show Low city government, business and education.

(13) comments

LksLady

I do have a certain amount of empathy for the individuals who went to TJ for this surgery....BUT "Lap Band" surgery is NOT without risks in the United States let alone going to TJ, of all places, to have this surgery done. There is the adage known as "Buyer Beware"...these people should have done their "due diligence" prior taking this step. Those individuals who promoted this procedure through the SLUSD and other sources here in the WM should be ashamed of themselves for putting local residents at risk...but the final responsibility rest on those people who did not check out facility first....

RandyD

You go to Mexico for medical care to save money then are shocked when things go wrong?

Tired

Good lord. That woman needs bangs and less eye makeup. Scary.

PWK

Thanks for the laugh[beam]

CarlsbadNanny

You’re rude, immature, and a bully. Unless your in an age group in the range of 11-17, you need to grow up. Shameful and disgusting post. If you’re an adult, do you ever wonder why children are bullies? Look in a mirror and guess what, there’s your answer.

PWK

I am very sorry to hear someone has passed and others injured. But why on earth are people listening to a certified midwife about bariactric surgery???

Marc-V-Ridenour

How sad the people have been harmed or even die. Travel to Mexico? No thanks.

Keepitreal

It’s a shame that she isn’t taking responsibility for her actions, blaming others and lying.
This woman did not take care of herself pre or post operation. She chose to eat unhealthy food, binge drink and pop pain pills like candy. She knew the risks and absolutely could have assisted in healing herself but she chose not to. Just as she CHOSE to travel to Mexico for weight loss surgery. She’s a woman in her 30’s and wasn’t coerced into anything. Seems that she’s creating a false story for a ridiculously high payout! Doesn’t seem fair to me.

TGC

How can you possibly know what she did pre and post operation unless you were the one who took her to Tijuana?

sunsfan03

Fraud is fraud. Fraud does not require coercion. Here is what the law is: The act, use or employment by any person of any deception, deceptive or unfair act or practice, fraud, false pretense, false promise, misrepresentation, or concealment, suppression or omission of any material fact with intent that others rely on such concealment, suppression or omission, in connection with the sale or advertisement of any merchandise whether or not any person has in fact been misled, deceived or damaged thereby ...

sunsfan03

Concealment or omission of a material fact is an interesting thing. And it seems that Gwendolyn Hall's nursing license was surrendered in conjunction with her concealing information about her weight loss business from the nursing board including her lack of certification and lack of training and Sandra Brimhall concealing and omitting several critical details about the safety of the surgeries from prospective customers. When you commit FRAUD, as defined by Arizona Revised Statutes, it does not matter if Jessie and Justin (that is me by the way) are big boys and girls, it means you committed fraud. And if you commit fraud, it opens you up to Tort Claims from everyone that you committed fraud against. And when those people have similar injuries, they can form a "class" and therefore a "class action" and they can sue the employers of said individuals if those employers are aware of the activity and allow it during working hours and do not take preventative actions under the doctrine of respondeat superior. But don't let little things like THE AMERICAN LEGAL SYSTEM bother you. Let's focus on tarnishing Jessie's reputation and on personal attacks against the class members for asserting their legal rights under US LAW and legal precedents. We have laws for a reason. Some of us follow them. Others use their work emails to take people to Mexico. Still others make up their own healthcare certifications and then perform procedures they are not legally authorized to.

Kahuna

Wendy Hall was medically incompetent. Anyone who went to her with anything more than a papercut was taking their life in their hands. Most of the people running this scam were in the same religious cult and in it to make quick bucks with almost no medical oversight. Not surprisingly, Wendy Hall has "retired".

CarlsbadNanny

Oh my, I was just reading through the comments on this article. The person who posted as “Tired” seems to be a bully. Obviously this person is not following the rules of the discussion page. How dare you, or anyone else for that matter, degrade a oerson’s photo. Tired is being blatantly rude and childish and I question if perhaps they are involved in this horrible scheme. What a horrible experience these people endured and instead of showing compassion, people are adding to their sorrow. I find this shameful and unnecessary. To those that are being rude, do you ever wonder why our children are bullies? Look no further than your own mirror. I’m sure none of these victims, “paid for what they got”. They paid money for a service, were harmed as a result of that service, and are due compensation. All I can say is that I pray nothing ever happens to the naysayers of this article because as you can clearly see, there is no compassion! Disgusting...

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