Richard Merritt
Richard Merritt (Alison Church/Freelance)

An Atlanta spine surgeon who sometimes works as an expert witness in personal injury cases has sued a former patient and his lawyers, claiming they stiffed him on $200,000 in medical bills after netting a $700,000 jury award.

The complaint filed Monday by Dr. James Chappuis, founder and CEO of Orthopaedic & Spine Surgery of Atlanta, said he’s owed $205,323 for more than two years of treatment provided to Shin Cho. Chappuis also testified as an expert witness at Cho’s trial.

The complaint was filed by the surgery’s vice president and general counsel, Richard Merritt, and named Cho as well as his attorneys in the personal injury action, James Rice Jr. and Thomas Schaefer.

It accuses Cho of using “pressure and misrepresentation” to convince a clinic staffer to accept just $7,500 as full payment of the debt and said the lawyers paid themselves and disbursed Cho’s net award from their trust account despite knowing Chappuis was still owed.

Even the debt Cho purportedly satisfied was “erroneous” and allegedly constituted less than a quarter of the actual sum owed to the doctor, according to the complaint.

Rice denied the suit’s allegations, pointing to a May 31 letter from Chappuis’ practice, saying Cho’s $7,500 payment satisfied his “current outstanding patient balance of $43,871.01.”

“Shortly after they sent that, they contacted us to say there was a ‘bookkeeping error’ and that Mr. Cho owed more than $205,000,” Rice said. “I retained outside counsel to get advice on what to do, and we told their office we were going to disburse the funds in two weeks, and that’s what we did.”

“I also contacted the Georgia bar, and they confirmed that that was the proper way to handle it, so we did all our due diligence before we distributed the money,” Rice said.

Rice said the doctor and his practice were already paid more than $100,000 by Cho’s insurer, and “Mr. Cho candidly feels that he doesn’t owe them anything.”

Schaefer said he was out of town and had not had a chance to review the complaint but was “not really sure why I’ve been named as a party.”

“Our official quote is that we stand by the complaint as drafted,” said Merritt, declining to discuss the case further.

On May 22, Cho was awarded $700,000 for claims that he developed back pain following a minor car wreck in Gwinnett County.

Rice told the Daily Report at the time that Cho drove away from the scene. He argued Cho, who already suffered at least three previous back injuries, was an “eggshell plaintiff” for whom even a low-impact wreck was dangerous.

Last year, Cho signed a “letter of protection” with Chappuis and his practice, agreeing to pay or have his attorneys pay “all outstanding medical bills” from funds accruing from the legal action, the complaint said.

The lawyers had previously worked with Chappuis on other cases and “knew the critical importance of the medical care being provided by [Chappuis], as it related to satisfying the burden of proof in proving causation and damages, and in the effectiveness of Plaintiff Chappuis’ testimony, as both a treating physician and a medical expert,” according to the complaint.

In fact, Rice sent Chappuis a congratulatory text message after the trial, saying the jury “liked you a lot and coming across as objective helped,” while they did not “buy” the defense expert’s “nonsense.”

But on May 31, Cho went to Orthopaedic & Spine Surgery’s main office and “through deliberate pressure and misrepresentation of the facts, convinced a clerical employee to accept $7,500 in satisfaction and payment in full of an alleged $43,871.01, which was erroneous, as the amount due and owing is $205,323.70,” according to the complaint.

The complaint said that, on June 17, Chappuis’ attorney sent a cease-and-desist letter to Rice “specifically instructing him not to disburse any funds” until he and his practice had been paid. On June 30 a satisfaction of judgment was filed with the court, but Rice and Schaefer “intentionally disregarded their obligation to compensate” the plaintiffs.

The suit, filed Aug. 21, names Cho, Rice, Schaefer and the lawyers’ practices as defendants, and includes counts for fraud, negligent misrepresentation and breach of contract.

Rice said it is “unfortunate that the plaintiffs have chosen to bring both my firm and Mr. Shaefer’s firm into a matter that is moot,” and is also moot regarding Cho.

“To say the least, the lawsuit is disappointing, but in any event we will vigorously defend it, including seeking fees and costs,” Rice said.