By Linda Kor
Five people have taken steps toward filing a class action lawsuit related to surgical referrals to Mexico and the post-surgical treatment received locally that they claim has led to injuries and some deaths.
Jessie Ballandby, Justin Blackburn, Carson Miller, Sheli Stoddard and Sunshine Brewer have served a notice of claim demanding $100 million in damages from 18 defendants, citing negligence, fraud, misrepresentation, violation of the Arizona Consumer Fraud Act and intentional infliction of emotional distress on behalf of themselves and as many as 6,000 other persons who received services from the defendants and those entities that supported their endeavors.
Those listed as defendants in the claim include current and former Snowflake residents Sandra Brimhall, a former principal at Whipple Ranch Elementary School in the Show Low School District, Iris Stratton, the owner of Fill Centers USA, and Gwendolyn Hall, a former certified midwife who was employed and trained in lap band care by Fill Centers USA. The claims states that these women collaborated on endeavors to provide a referral service and after care services for patients who received gastric sleeve, Lapband surgery and/or cosmetic surgery.
The claim alleges that the plaintiffs sustained long term physical, emotional and mental effects after either utilizing the referral service provided by Brimhall, the after care treatment received by Hall or other services provided by the defendants.
The claim also notes the incidents that precipitated the action.
Ballandby reportedly suffered permanent damage to her physical, emotional and mental health after Brimhall referred her to Dr. Mario Alamanza in Tijuana, Mexico, in 2014 for gastric sleeve surgery. It’s alleged that Brimhall, who has no medical background, was referring patients to physicians with no knowledge of their medical history, procedural environment, safety protocols or the condition of the surgical center where treatment was received.
Elizabeth Erickson, the stepmother of Justin Blackburn, died in 2013 after surgeons discovered the lap band she received in Mexico had eroded through her stomach and diaphragm, and had lodged in her right lung. The widespread infection and lack of treatment allegedly led to her death. Prior to that she had been receiving treatment from Hall, who, according to the Arizona State Board of Nursing, failed to notify Erickson’s physician, or to take measures to determine the cause of the severe pain and loss of weight experienced by Hall.
Blackburn himself received lap band surgery in Mexico and went to Hall for post-surgery treatment. He claims he suffered from multiple complications due to overfilling of his band and his health continues to suffer as a result of that treatment.
Carson Miller was another one of Hall’s patients. Miller was morbidly obese at 285 pounds when he went to Mexico in 2010 for lap band surgery. Over a period of two years Miller’s weight dropped to 159 pounds, which Miller claims was due to Hall’s treatment.
Sunshine Brewer and Sheli Stoddard also received after care from Hall and reported complications.
In May of this year, the Arizona State Board of Nursing suspended Hall from the practice of nursing, in part due to her not having proper training and credentials to provide lap band aftercare.
According to Blackburn, the women noted in the claim are preying on prospective patients by emphasizing the affordability factor. “The main motivator is cost savings. You weigh that versus safety. If that’s a scale, safety versus cost savings, these people have their thumb on the scale,” said Blackburn.
Brimhall, who has dubbed herself the “Weight Coyote” in emails sent from her Show Low Unified School District account, actively recruited referrals utilizing district resources during business hours while employed as a principal at Whipple Ranch Elementary School in Show Low.
Emails provided to The Tribune-News show that Brimhall ran a lucrative referral service using SLUSD resources for more than five years. Those emails included referrals to Dr. Mario Almanza, who opened his own clinic after working as an assistant under Dr. Andres Betencourt, a physician Brimhall had been providing referrals to until he died in 2014. Almanza was the physician who operated on Ballandby, and is reportedly linked to four deaths and nearly a dozen incidents in which patients were exposed to unsterile environments and incomplete surgical procedures resulting in permanent health problems.
In one email Brimhall acknowledged that Almanza had performed up to 20 surgeries per day, and in another she noted that there were no doctors on hand for patients who were moved to a hotel the day after surgery. In an email dated in March 2016, two years after Ballandby nearly died in Mexico, Brimhall wrote to a client, “I have taken down over 250 ladies and no one has ever regretted it.”
“Our contention is that there were unsafe conditions in Mexico, and I think that’s obvious that the surgeon she (Brimhall) was using, by her own admission, performed 20 surgeries in a day. She told scheduled patients that the clinic Almanza had assisted at was calling to harass them, and that patients should ignore them when they were calling to say this guy doesn’t know what he’s doing,” said Blackburn.
“Jessie (Ballandby) almost died in that hotel and there wasn’t a doctor on hand, there wasn’t anybody there. So a month after her surgery they say they need a doctor at the hotel. That’s Sandy’s job as a facilitator is to make sure her friends and family have safe conditions. That’s her whole purpose. She’s supposed to know the doctors and make sure things are safe, otherwise why go through her at all?” stated Blackburn.
Other defendants listed in the claim include the Show Low Unified School District; the estate of the late Kevin Brackney, former superintendent of SLUSD; Michael Seaman, former business manager for SLUSD; businesses owned by Stratton; Summit Regional Medical Center; and Lexington Life Academy, where Brimhall is currently employed. Also listed as defendants are S. Ross Fox, Ariel Ortiz, Lee Grossbard, Kathy Fox, Gwendolyn Hall, Tammy Hall-Kubitza, Dr. Mauricio Gutierrez and Kristie Rivington-Blackwell.
The notice of claim was served on the defendants in August and a formal lawsuit is slated to be filed in Maricopa County Superior Court within the month.