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Two Evansville foot doctors are facing a near-record number of medical malpractice claims and allegations of unnecessary surgery and questionable billing practices. The doctors, the husband and wife podiatry team of Thomas and Lori Hupfer, also are immersed in a multimillion-dollar bankruptcy case and a legal dispute over $169,000 in back taxes and penalties allegedly owed to the Internal Revenue Service.
The government alleges the couple failed to pay a portion of their employees' withholding taxes over several years. The Hupfers say it was their accountant's fault. The Hupfers own the Evansville Foot & Ankle Center on Lincoln Avenue. Both are doctors of podiatric medicine. Information about the number of malpractice claims the couple face became available over the Internet late last year, when the Indiana Department of Insurance began posting information on a new Web site.
According to the department, 15 malpractice claims have been filed against Thomas Hupfer since 1999, and nine claims have been filed against Lori Hupfer during the same period. Two of the claims were dismissed after medical review panels found no malpractice had occurred. But the medical review panels found that malpractice had occurred in five other cases, including one in which an Evansville woman claimed the couple performed unnecessary surgery that left her disabled. The remaining claims are still pending, awaiting review by medical review panels. They involve allegations of premature, inappropriate or unnecessary surgical procedures. Some of the former patients who are suing also contend they were billed for procedures not performed.
Despite the findings of the medical review panels, the Hupfers are fighting the claims in court. They deny allegations of wrongdoing, and contend the malpractice claims are motivated by greed and politics. "On a national level, those of us in the orthopedic specialities are being targeted by the plaintiffs' bar," said Thomas Hupfer. "And on a local level, we're being targeted for our pro-life stance and political activities. Everyone knows our pro-life stance and we're being vilified for it."
The Hupfers are Roman Catholic, and have supported anti-abortion candidates. So too, though, have two of the attorneys who have filed plaintiffs' claims against the Hupfers. One of them is Terry Noffsinger, an evangelical Christian active in Vanderburgh County Right to Life.
Thomas Hupfer also said his medical practice, which includes his wife and two other podiatrists, Dr. Dusky Farmer and Dr. Charlotte Reisinger, is more vulnerable to malpractice claims because of the kind of procedures they perform and the number of high-risk patients they see.
"We perform procedures no one else in this area is trained to do," said Thomas Hupfer. He said his practice has been harmed by the amount of litigation he and his wife now face. "I've had to spend time dealing with all of it, instead of my work," he said. The Hupfers declared bankruptcy last fall, reporting $3.4 million in liabilities and less than $700,000 in assets. According to bankruptcy records, secured creditors have moved to foreclose on the couple's $425,000 home and other property. The home, according to bankruptcy records, has three mortgages on it. The couple are disputing several of the large claims made by lenders, including Old National Bank and Fifth Third. Because bankruptcy law requires the complete disclosure of assets and liabilities, the couple have had to disclose detailed financial information about their income and spending habits, and of their business dealings, including the 17 corporations in which they are the sole shareholders. Thomas Hupfer said the bankruptcy matter is "private and painful."
Meanwhile, the couple are also involved in a legal dispute over back taxes. According to court records, the IRS contends the couple's medical practice failed to pay some of its employees' withholding taxes over several years, resulting in an IRS demand for $169,000. In turn, the couple have filed a lawsuit against the accounting firm, the Kemper CPA Group, accusing the firm of accounting malpractice. The Hupfers claim it was the firm's fault the Hupfers' medical practice failed to pay the withholding taxes, according to court records. Although the IRS claim initially was made against a corporation formed by the Hupfers, the couple are being held personally liable for the taxes. Alan Shovers, attorney for the Kemper CPA Group, said the Hupfers' lawsuit is without merit. "There's absolutely no basis for their claims," said Shovers. The lawsuit against the Kemper CPA Group was "stayed" after the Hupfers filed for bankruptcy, meaning it can't progress until the bankruptcy case is closed. However, U.S. Bankruptcy Judge Basil Lorch has ruled that lawsuits involving the medical malpractice claims can go forward.