Christopher Duntsch may be the most famous neurosurgeon in Texas. In the last few years, he’s been the subject of multiple news features in the Observer, The Dallas Morning News and “The Today Show,” and even landed a starring role in a TV spot during the governor’s race last year.
But Duntsch is no Dr. Oz. He’s become so famous lately because of what he represents: the deadly web of protections under Texas law that keep even the most dangerously inept surgeons in the operating room, and protects them and the hospitals that employ them after they maim and kill their patients.
But a police report last month suggests that the law may finally have caught up with Duntsch. A bit.
Two years ago, Saul Elbein pieced together Duntsch’s career in Dallas from late 2010 to mid-2013, unfolding in a steady drumbeat of tragedy: patients paralyzed, injured and killed, one after another as other doctors looked on in horror and tried to repair his botched work. “Therapeutic misadventure” was the cause of death the medical examiner gave for Duntsch’s 55-year-old patient Kellie Martin, who died during a routine surgery to ease her chronic back pain. Records noted “impairment from drugs or alcohol” were affecting his performance. “The [Medical Board] must stop this sociopath Duntsch immediately or he will continue [to] maim and kill innocent patients,” Baylor surgeon Randall Kirby warned the board.
The state finally suspended Duntsch’s medical license in late 2013, and he’s kept a fairly low profile in the press since. His name comes up lately as a cautionary tale, amid news of a lawsuit filed by his former patients against Baylor Regional Medical Center at Plano, and the legal roadblocks that prevent Duntsch from answering for his actions. Gubernatorial hopeful Wendy Davis attacked Greg Abbott for “using his office to go to court against the victims” after receiving large campaign contributions from the hospital system’s chairman.
Through it all, Duntsch has been cocooned by Texas law—until last month, at least, when he got caught on the wrong side of a Wal-Mart checkout line in a stolen pair of pants.
That’s according to a Dallas police affidavit filed on April 8, which says Duntsch was caught on camera at the Wal-Mart at Northwest Highway and Skillman Street, trying to walk out without paying for $887 worth of sunglasses, watches, ties, briefcases, cologne and other items. According to the police narrative, Duntsch changed into a pair of Wal-Mart pants in a dressing room, put his own pants into a cart, and pushed the whole cart out of the store without paying.
Duntsch agreed by voicemail to an interview for this story on Wednesday, but did not return subsequent calls for comment.
Even the steepest punishment—a maximum $4,000 fine and up to a year in jail—will come as little relief for Duntsch’s former patients and their families, but it’s another signifier of the priorities that guide Texas law: A man backed by a hospital’s insurance can injure patients with impunity, but he’ll surely know justice for trying to rip off a discount retailer.
Duntsch has a court date next month for the shoplifting case along with the unrelated matter of a criminal trespass complaint filed against him last fall. In September, according to police reports, while his girlfriend was giving birth to their second child he hopped the fence at her sister’s home, snuck in an unlocked back door and wrested their eldest son free from the child’s grandmother before driving off with the boy. Duntsch’s girlfriend explained to police that “her family did not get along with Christopher.” The police report also notes Duntsch is on probation for drunk driving in Colorado.
He may not be licensed to practice medicine anymore, but Duntsch has remained active in other medical realms. He’s on the board of the journal “Cell Science and Report” from a year-old publisher named MedCrave, which is apparently based in a house in Oklahoma and may be an American “clone” of the Hyderabad, India-based OMICS Publishing Group. Duntsch also advertises his services as head of Hybrid Bioscience, Inc., which pledges to bridge the gap “between the great disciplines of modern world science and medicine,” and Synthetic Investments, Inc. The latter company, which shares a name with a complex financial services product, bills itself as a way to invest in experimental stem cell treatments.
Duntsch is also in the midst of bankruptcy proceedings in Colorado, and here in Texas, he faces a suit from his old roommate Jerry Summers—whose spinal cord was damaged in surgery performed by Dunsch—and his old hospital is facing an ongoing suit from Duntsch patient Kenneth Fennell. Even if Duntsch or Baylor lose those cases—which are scheduled for trial within a year—Texas law ensures neither will be responsible for sizeable malpractice damages.
The lawsuit from Duntsch’s former patient, Barry Morguloff, who detailed “what can only be described as one of the most prolific mass torts involving medical malpractice in Texas history,” is still chugging through federal court as well—but without either Duntsch or Baylor as defendants. They were each dropped from the suit in recent months, leaving Kimberly Morgan, the nurse who assisted Duntsch in his surgeries, as the only defendant in the case to answer for his dangerous work.