Skip to content
Link copied to clipboard

Doc slammed with $20.5 million in damages after lipo death

Montco doc, anesthetist found liable after complications claim life of teen

Amy Fledderman, an eighteen year old Penn State Freshman from Delaware County who died in 2001, after having liposuction. (family photo)
Amy Fledderman, an eighteen year old Penn State Freshman from Delaware County who died in 2001, after having liposuction. (family photo)Read more

AMY FLEDDERMAN's case was never going to be settled out of court, her parents say, because it was never about money.

Daniel and Colleen Fledderman, of Newtown Square, Delaware County, decided in 2001 that the doctor who performed the fatal liposuction surgery on their daughter, an 18-year-old Penn State freshman, must be held accountable for her death.

And they wanted to warn the public about Dr. Richard Glunk, who they say refused to call an ambulance before it was too late to save her life.

Glunk, a board-certified plastic surgeon who has been practicing for 21 years, insists that Fledderman died from a rare and virtually untreatable complication that was out of his control.

Yesterday - exactly seven years after Fledderman walked into Glunk's King of Prussia office to have pockets of fat removed from her chin and stomach - a Philadelphia jury said he was wrong.

And they want him to pay for it.

The jury of nine women and three men deliberated for 14 hours over three days before awarding the Fleddermans $20.5 million in compensatory and punitive damages, finding that Glunk and his nurse anesthetist were responsible for Amy's death.

Her mother, a special-education teacher, broke down crying and her shoulders heaved as the verdict was read. Glunk gulped when the jury foreman rattled off dollar figures in the millions.

The verdict, which followed a five-week trial in front of Common Pleas Judge Sheldon C. Jelin, is a victory for future cosmetic surgery patients, the Fleddermans said, but anything short of a criminal conviction falls short of justice for their daughter.

"We don't want it to happen to anybody else," Colleen Fledderman said. "We want to deter Dr. Glunk from hurting any other patients. We don't want anybody to even go to him. We don't want them to suffer the way that Amy did.

"You could have saved her life. You chose not to," she said, referring to Glunk. "We will never understand it to our dying breath why you didn't get a kid help when she needed it."

Glunk vowed to appeal, saying yesterday that, statistically, one out of every 47,000 people who have liposuction surgery die, and that Fledderman, who died from fat embolism syndrome, was that unfortunate "one."

"The procedure was done properly," he said. "It's a tragedy and it'll tear me apart for the rest of my life. Even though it's something that I couldn't control, it still tears you apart. But fat embolism syndrome can happen."

"This is one of the most tragic things you can ever think of happening in your life," Glunk said. "I know it has tremendously affected the Fledderman family, but it has deeply affected myself and my family."

The 50-year-old doctor, however, said he called the ambulance for Fledderman "the instant she had decreased breath sounds." And he believes the lawsuit was filed mostly to get into his wallet: "They like to say they weren't seeking money, but all their actions are toward seeking money."

Amy Marie Fledderman was home from Penn State's main campus for Christmas break when she told her parents that she wanted to have liposuction.

At 5 feet 5 and 128 pounds, the former captain of Marple Newtown High School's tennis team wasn't overweight. She was a regular runner who had lost 25 to 30 pounds over the years and was determined not to succumb to the weight gain that plagues some new college students.

But Fledderman couldn't lose the fat around her stomach and chin. So in May 2001, she and her mom consulted Glunk, who said that such "genetic fat" could be removed only through surgery, according to the family's attorney, Slade McLaughlin.

During a consultation, the doctor allayed Colleen Fledderman's concerns by saying, " 'Amy's an athlete. She's young. She's healthy. She's zero risk. This is liposuction,' " McLaughlin told the jury.

The surgery was performed on May 23, 2001, in Glunk's office. Fledderman died two days later at the Hospital of the University of Pennsylvania of a complication in which fat enters the bloodstream and lodges in a person's lungs.

"She died a horrible death," McLaughlin said. "She choked on her own blood."

The lawsuit, filed in August 2001, claims, among other things, that Glunk delayed in calling an ambulance for Amy and that the delay was what caused her death.

"She pleaded, she begged, 'Please call an ambulance for my daughter.' But he wouldn't. He refused," McLaughlin said.

The jury found yesterday that Glunk and his nurse anesthetist, Edward DeStefano, were negligent. It awarded $5.5 million in compensatory damages. The liability is split 75 percent for Glunk and 25 percent for DeStefano. Glunk is on the hook for an additional $15 million in punitive damages.

DeStefano's attorney, Steven Levy, declined to comment yesterday.

"The more that he talked and said things that weren't supported by what other witnesses said and what the evidence was, they got angrier and angrier," McLaughlin, of the Beasley Firm, said of the plastic surgeon. "And obviously a $15 million punitive award is an angry jury."

Glunk was later found to be operating without a state license for "ambulatory surgical facilities." He said his office doesn't meet that definition and, therefore, he doesn't need the license, but he got it in 2004 "just to prove that the place is safe."

He said he continues to perform liposuction procedures, though not in his office.

In November 2001, Montgomery County prosecutors found insufficient evidence of criminal negligence in Glunk's case and did not file homicide charges.

But he could lose his medical license altogether if the state Bureau of Professional and Occupational Affairs has its way.

The bureau filed a complaint against him in November 2006, citing Fledderman's case and two previous patients - one man who went into septic shock in 1998 when Glunk allegedly punctured his small bowel and colon, and a woman who was hospitalized after receiving liposuction two days before Fledderman.

Both patients survived. Lawsuits in both of those cases were settled out of court for substantial sums.

Hearings on the state's disciplinary action against Glunk concluded in February. The state Board of Medicine will decide whether his medical license should be suspended or revoked, or whether to fine him.

The board could also decide not to take action against him.

Colleen Fledderman doesn't want Glunk performing surgery on anybody, and she wants him to pay for what happened to her daughter. But even a multimillion-dollar verdict provided little comfort yesterday to the mother who lost her teenaged daughter.

"At the end of this," she said, "we go home without Amy." *

Staff writer Stephanie Farr contributed to this report.