Attorney Elizabeth Kuniholm of Raleigh, N.C., and 15 of her clients involved in a case against an HMO doctor received this year's Steven J. Sharp Public Service Award for exposing the exploitative and abusive actions of the physician. The award was presented to the attorney and client Robyn Santitoro at the membership and awards luncheon at the Annual Convention in Chicago. Five of the other clients were present for the ceremony.
Santitoro and another woman originally came to Kuniholm separately, accusing Dr. Wallace Evans II of patient abuse. The suit was filed in 1995, and subsequently more than 75 women contacted the attorney with complaints about Evans.
Evidence presented at trial revealed that two HMOs had received numerous complaints about Evans's conduct and language during physical exams of patients. Blue Cross/Blue Shield of North Carolina conducted an investigation but allowed Evans to stay on its physician roster in spite of his refusal to change his behavior. Evidence also showed Evans had entered a confidential state medical board treatment program for "impaired" physicians while he continued to treat patients. Sexual misconduct is considered an "impairment" by the board. All of this information was kept confidential from the public.
"These women succeeded where the medical community failed," said Kuniholm. "The medical community knew about the complaints against Dr. Evans, yet did nothing. Now the truth about what happened to these women is part of the public record, and no one else will be harmed."
Their actions embody the spirit of the Steven Sharp award, which is named for a young man from Oregon who lost both his arms in 1992 in a defective tractor hay baler. Sharp won an $8.5 million verdict against the tractor company, which the Wisconsin Supreme Court upheld on appeal. If proposed federal legislation regarding the age of the equipment had been law, Steven would have been unable to sue the tractor manufacturer. His case illustrated how this legislation would deprive people like him of access to justice.
The recipients of last year's award were attorneys Rene Haas and David Perry of Corpus Christi, Tex., and their client John Caballero of Victoria, Tex., who was injured in a gas well explosion. They won a $30 million punitive damages award against Esenjay Petroleum Corp. Caballero decided to turn down the money in exchange for Esenjay's promise to institute a new safety program that would prevent other workers from suffering similar tragedies.