Widow Settles Suit Over Husband's Surgical Care Death at VA Hospital

The second of two Kentucky widows has settled her federal lawsuit over surgical care they say killed their husbands at an Illinois Veterans Affairs hospital where major surgeries have been halted for nearly two years after a spike in patient deaths.

Terms of Darla Marshall's April settlement over 61-year-old James Marshall's July 2007 blood infection death six days after his lymph node biopsy at the VA hospital in Marion were not disclosed in online court records. The Benton, Ky., widow had sought $10 million in her wrongful-death lawsuit, filed here in April of last year.

Another widow, Katrina Shank of Murray, Ky., last year settled for $975,000 her lawsuit involving Robert Shank III, an Air Force veteran who was 50 when he bled to death in 2007 a day after undergoing gallbladder surgery at the Marion site. Katrina Shank had sought $12 million in damages.

Both were patients of surgeon Jose Veizaga-Mendez, who resigned in August 2007 three days after Shank died.

Within a month of Shank's death, surgeries at the Marion site -- which serves veterans from southern Illinois, southwestern Indiana and western Kentucky -- were halted after the VA found that at least nine deaths between October 2006 and March 2007 were "directly attributable" to substandard care there.

Those deaths did not include Robert Shank and James Marshall, who died months later.

The VA's findings did not put the sole blame on Veizaga-Mendez, but Shank's lawsuit said many or all of those who died were his patients.

Of an additional 34 cases the VA investigated, 10 patients died after receiving questionable care that complicated their health, officials said. Investigators could not determine if the actual care caused those deaths.

The VA's own investigations of the surgical deaths often have been blistering, at times labeling the hospital's previous management as "dysfunctional and inefficient."

The lawsuits named only the U.S. government, which runs the VA system that includes the Marion hospital. Messages left Tuesday with Marshall's attorney and the VA were not immediately returned.

Minor surgical procedures resumed at the Marion hospital in May of last year, but the VA has not said when major operations would return.

Both lawsuits accused the government of negligence for allegedly not adequately checking Veizaga-Mendez's background before hiring him in January 2006. The widows claimed a better check would have uncovered Veizaga-Mendez's "history of providing substandard care to his patients" in Massachusetts, where he was under investigation for allegedly botching seven cases in 2004 and 2005, including two that resulted in deaths.

Veizaga-Mendez's Illinois license was indefinitely suspended by regulators in October 2007. He was permanently barred from practicing medicine in Massachusetts the next month, a move that also required him to resign any other state medical licenses he held and to withdraw pending license applications. He has also made payouts in two Massachusetts malpractice lawsuits.

Veizaga-Mendez, who is not listed as a defendant in the lawsuits, has no listed telephone number and has not responded to repeated messages left by the AP at a Massachusetts home listed as an address for his wife.

The Veterans Affairs Department has come under harsh criticism by veterans, some of whom were severely wounded in Iraq and Afghanistan, who have continued to endure financial hardship while their claims are processed. In June, lawmakers in Washington also criticized the department about why a scare over botched colonoscopies earlier this year didn't prompt stronger safeguards at the agency's medical centers.