The former Coast Guardsman says the settlement might never have happened if he hadn’t made a donation to a rescue-dog organization that preserved a key piece of evidence: his amputated leg.
The checks came a few weeks ago, courtesy of the United States, made out in amounts bigger than what Tim Kuncl had ever before held.
There were six in all, totaling more than $900,000 — minus the nearly half-million spent on legal costs and fees — all payable to Kuncl, his soon-to-be ex-wife and their four children.
Still, Kuncl hardly felt victorious. Not after more than six years of pain and anguish. Not after losing his lower right leg, his marriage, and, for one dark moment as he lay in bed early one morning last fall, his will to live.
For Kuncl, a 48-year-old former Coast Guardsman whose fall while hanging Christmas lights at his Puyallup home in 2011 changed his life, and later his view on veteran health care, the checks meant an end to a protracted legal battle, but not a resolution.
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“There was an expectation of mine that I now know is never going to be met,” he said. “It wasn’t revenge or payback; it was accountability. But there is no accountability. The federal government never says, ‘I’m sorry you lost your leg, that your life got ruined.’ If you’re going into this for accountability, you’re not going to get it. You’re just going to get a check — and you’re going to go through hell to get it.”
The federal government’s $1.4 million payout last month to settle Kuncl’s malpractice lawsuit ends a saga that took him through three leg surgeries at the VA Puget Sound Health Care System, before a desperate flight to a private doctor for an amputation to rid him of the unbearable pain Kuncl believes the VA’s surgeons caused.
Under the settlement, the VA admitted no wrongdoing. In a written statement last week, a spokeswoman for the VA’s regional medical system said: “Given the cost and risks of litigation, both sides chose to settle this matter. VA Puget Sound exercises an ongoing review of practices to ensure excellent quality of care.”
The settlement might never have come, Kuncl and his Tacoma attorneys say, if Kuncl hadn’t made a fateful donation to a rescue-dog organization that unwittingly preserved a key piece of evidence: his amputated leg.
“If I hadn’t donated that leg, we would’ve lost the case,” Kuncl said. “It was the smoking gun.”
Kuncl (pronounced Kun-sil) recently explained his case as he rifled through a banker’s box stuffed with accordion files, legal transcripts and compact discs containing images of X-rays and videos of pathological exams and hours of pretrial witness testimony.
The pile of evidence includes the videotaped deposition of Dr. Bruce Sangeorzan, a VA orthopedic surgeon who oversaw Kuncl’s surgeries and who strongly denied medical negligence.
Related | An amputee discusses his VA experience
Sangeorzan testified he offered Kuncl only the best care, claiming he examined and treated Kuncl and his broken right tibia during more visits than the VA had documented in Kuncl’s patient files.
For more than an hour, Sangeorzan answered questions from Jim Holman, Kuncl’s lawyer, contending the surgeries he and resident physicians performed on Kuncl were successful.
That included a third and final operation in March 2014, he said, during which Sangeorzan claimed he successfully fused bones in Kuncl’s ankle together.
“I didn’t find anything in there that explained the degree of pain he was having,” Sangeorzan added.
But when Kuncl’s pain intensified and he felt bones still moving in his ankle, he abandoned the heavily subsidized health care he earned while serving his country for private treatment from Dr. Hossein Pakzad in Tacoma.
Kuncl was desperate when he came to him, Pakzad recalled during his deposition. His pain was so great he could barely walk. Kuncl had been forced to quit his job and his social life was deteriorating.
“His case was very heartbreaking for me, like realizing what he went through,” Pakzad testified.
Pakzad’s own findings through exams and X-rays contradicted Sangeorzan, determining the VA’s final surgery on Kuncl’s ankle had failed to fuse his bones or meet the standard of medical care.
Pakzad also testified that VA surgeons had inadvertently pushed a surgical screw about a centimeter into a nerve bundle in Kuncl’s ankle, causing him extreme and chronic pain.
When Assistant U.S. Attorney Patricia Gugin questioned his “theory,” Pakzad responded: “If there is any doubt about that, the specimen is still available.”
After it was cut off, Kuncl gifted his lower right limb to Northwest Disaster Search Dogs, a nonprofit that trains canines to find bodies after major catastrophes.
The group kept the leg frozen between training sessions, and later turned the limb over to Kuncl’s lawyers after they filed his lawsuit in 2016.
Dr. J. Matthew Lacy, a pathologist who examined the leg for Kuncl, reported that he observed the surgical screw protruding a full centimeter into soft tissue, finding it had badly scarred and damaged the tibial nerve.
Sangeorzan dismissed Lacy’s findings as “silly.” He testified he never noticed a screw sticking out far enough that would’ve caused Kuncl that kind of harm or pain, and contended all the freezing and thawing of Kuncl’s amputated leg rendered Lacy’s findings worthless.
“That would not stand up to scientific anything,” he said.
But when the case went through required pretrial mediation in August, the government agreed to pay Kuncl $1.75 million.
A state court agreed to the settlement amount, but it required U.S. Justice Department approval. Several weeks passed, but no approval came.
Kuncl, who’d since been fitted with a prosthetic limb, grew tired of waiting. He spiraled into a 30-milligram-per-day methadone habit to deal with new pain borne from his amputation, and his marriage had fallen apart.
“I couldn’t handle the stress,” he said. “It was 2 in the morning, and I was like, I do not want to wake up tomorrow. I can’t deal with this.”
His attempted overdose failed only because his methadone tolerance was so high, he said. Kuncl saw a counselor, and later broke his addiction.
In January, word finally came back that a top Justice Department official had rejected the settlement, instead offering to pay Kuncl $1.4 million.
“We’d never seen a court-approved settlement reduced,” said Jessica Holman Duthie, one of Kuncl’s lawyers. “It was disheartening.”
Kuncl’s immediate reaction was to fight. “I wanted to go to trial,” he said.
But he and his family were exhausted. He accepted the lower offer.
The settlement established college-trust funds for each of Kuncl’s four kids, provided his wife with a generous cut, and allowed him to buy half a duplex about a mile from his family’s home, where he plans to move.
He’ll spend most of what’s left of the money on future living expenses, he said.
As for his lost leg, Kuncl has plans for that, too.
For months, as his case dragged on, the key piece of evidence was submerged in a bucket of formaldehyde and stored in his lawyer’s office. The preservatives rendered it useless for the rescue-dog group, but Kuncl couldn’t bear to see his leg destroyed.
Instead, he retrieved it from his lawyer Wednesday, and then took it to a Kent mortuary to be cremated as part of a personal mission he dubbed “Operation Leg Burn.”
Kuncl plans to place the ashes in a boot-shape beer stein he recently bought online.
“I’m going to keep it on the mantel,” he said.