Published July 27, 2007
OLYMPIA, Wash. – An oral surgeon who temporarily implanted fake boar tusks in his assistant's mouth as a practical joke and got sued for it has gotten the state's high court to back up his gag.
Dr. Robert Woo of Auburn had put in the phony tusks while the woman was under anesthesia for a different procedure. He took them out before she awoke, but he first shot photos that eventually made it around the office.
The employee, Tina Alberts, felt so humiliated when she saw the pictures that she quit and sued her boss.
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, so Woo settled out of court. He agreed to pay Alberts $250,000, then he 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. On Thursday, the state Supreme Court restored Woo's award.
In a sprightly 5-4 decision, Supreme Court Justice Mary Fairhurst wrote that Woo's practical joke was an integral, if odd, part of the assistant's dental surgery and "conceivably" should trigger the professional liability coverage of his policy.
Dissenting Justice James Johnson said the prank wasn't a dental procedure at all and only "rewards Dr. Woo's obnoxious behavior and allows him to profit handsomely."
The back story, the court wrote, is that Alberts' family raises potbellied pigs and that she frequently talked about them at the office where she worked for five years.
Woo said his jests about the pigs were part of "a friendly working environment" that he tried to foster.
The oral surgery on Alberts was intended to replace two of her teeth with implants, which Woo did. First, though, he installed temporary bridges that he had shaped to look like boar tusks, and while Alberts was still under anesthesia, he took photos, some with her eyes propped open. Before she woke up, he removed the "tusks" and put in the proper replacement teeth.
Woo says he didn't personally show her the pictures but staffers gave her copies at a birthday party.
Woo's lawyer, Richard Kilpatrick, described the surgeon as a kindhearted, fun-loving man who was chagrined that an office prank turned out so badly. He was delighted with the high court's decision, Kilpatrick said.
Attorneys for the insurance company did not immediately return calls seeking comment.