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.”