$1M Jury Award Restored in Suit over Dental Surgery Prank

July 27, 2007 (PLANSPONSOR.COM) - The Washington state Supreme Court has restored a $1 million jury award to an oral surgeon whose insurance company refused to cover his liability in a suit by his assistant over what the surgeon said was a botched practical joke during the assistant's surgical procedure.

In a 5-4 decision ,Supreme Court Justice Mary Fairhurst wrote that the joke by Auburn, Washington, oral surgeon Dr. Robert Woo was an odd part of the assistant’s dental surgery and “conceivably” should trigger the professional liability coverage of his policy, according to an Associated Press news report. Woo temporarily implanted fake boar tusks in his assistant’s mouth while she was under anesthesia for a procedure .

Dissenting Justice James Johnson said the prank was not part of a dental procedure at all and only “rewards Dr. Woo’s obnoxious behavior and allows him to profit handsomely.”

Woo’s assistant Tina Alberts sued him after saying she had been humiliated when photos of the boar tusks in her mouth circulated within the dentist’s office. The oral surgery on Alberts was intended to replace two of her teeth with implants, which Woo did, but he first installed temporary bridges that he had shaped to look like tusks. While Alberts was still under anesthesia, he took photos, some with her eyes propped open.

Woo’s insurance company, Fireman’s Fund, refused to cover the claim, saying the practical joke was intentional and not a normal business activity his insurance policy covered. Woo eventually agreed to pay Alberts $250,000 in a settlement and then sued his insurers.

A King County Superior Court jury sided with Woo, ordering Fireman’s Fund to pay him $750,000 plus the out-of-court settlement. The insurance company won the next round, with the state Court of Appeals saying the prank had nothing to do with Woo’s practice of dentistry. Thursday’s state Supreme Court ruling restored Woo’s award.

The high court’s opinion pointed out that Alberts’ family raises potbellied pigs and that she frequently talked about them at the office. Woo said his jests about the pigs were part of “a friendly working environment” he tried to foster.