Fresno dentist sued after teen loses part of her jaw

Lawyer in case explores Hmong culture's role in doctor's advice to patient

The Fresno BeeSeptember 24, 2013 

A young Fresno woman is suing her dentist for negligence in a civil trial that is exploring whether Hmong culture played a role in the woman's medical troubles.

The trial in Fresno County Superior Court pits Elina Vue, 23, against Dr. Su Nhia Ying Vang, who has been practicing in Fresno since 1998 at Brite Care Dental on East Shields Avenue near Millbrook Avenue.

Tuesday, Vue and Vang gave their final pitch to the jury.

She contends that Vang failed to treat a growing tumor that X-rays first revealed in November 2004.

Over the next 20 months, Vue made more than a dozen visits to Vang's office. During that time, Vang took more than seven sets of X-rays of Vue's teeth, filled several cavities, did a root canal, extracted two teeth and gave her antibiotics and painkillers. But, Vue testified, Vang failed to detect a tumor in her jaw or refer her to a specialist in a timely manner.

When she finally saw an oral surgeon, it was too late: her left jaw had to be removed in June 2006 and a metal bar had to be inserted. Her face is disfigured, and she says the ordeal caused her to suffer depression. She is asking for $3 million in damage to cover past and future medical expenses, lost wages and for pain and suffering.

Vang, however, testified that he treated Vue properly and referred her to an oral surgeon, but Vue's mother wanted to wait to see if the antibiotics worked.

Closing arguments are Wednesday. During the trial, which began Sept. 5, jurors have received a crash course in dental X-rays, root canals, cavities, gum diseases, abnormalities and dental hygiene.

They've also heard about the Hmong culture. Vue is represented by Fresno attorney Jeff Bohn, a former Mormon missionary who is fluent in Hmong and who came to Fresno in the late 1980s to convert newly arrived Hmong refugees.

Vang is represented by Sacramento attorney John Sillis, who Bohn said is well versed in defending dentists up and down California.

During the trial, Bohn said Vue, who attended Central High School in Fresno, was raised to respect her Hmong elders, especially those with college degrees (Vang's is from the University of Southern California School of Dentistry) and careers. When she went to see Vang in November 2004 for cavities and a checkup, she trusted he would take care of her, Bohn said.

At the time of her visit, she and her family didn't know that Vang was in trouble with the Dental Board of California.

In October 2006, Vang agreed to seven years of probation after the Dental Board accused him of negligence involving nearly 30 patients from 1999 to 2003.

Jurors don't know about the Dental Board evidence, because in a pre-trial ruling, Judge Donald Black said it could prevent Vang from receiving a fair trial.

Black also ruled that jurors can't know this is Vue's second attempt to prove her negligence charge against Vang. In the first trial in late 2010, jurors hung in favor of finding Vang negligent.

It takes at least nine of 12 jurors to vote unanimously to reach a civil verdict.

Both sides agree that in November 2004, Vue, then 15, went to see Vang for a long overdue checkup. Vang took X-rays and noted significant tooth decay with poor dental hygiene. He filled several cavities and started root canal therapy on one of Vue's teeth, Sillis said.

But Bohn told the jury that Vang failed to note other abnormalities revealed by the X-rays -- including a growing tumor that most dentists would have detected.

As time passed, Vue's mouth began bleeding, and she was in pain and could not bite down properly, Bohn told jurors. During a June 2005 visit, Vue and her mother asked Vang "if everything was going to be all right and Dr. Vang informed them that it was only an infection and would clear up. Dr. Vang prescribed antibiotics a second time," Bohn said.

Vue didn't go back to Vang until the tooth fell out during a 2005 Christmas party, Bohn said. Vang took more X-rays that Bohn said revealed the growing tumor. "The swelling grew from the size of a grape to the size of a walnut," Bohn told the jury.

"Dr. Vang either misreads the X-rays or does not know how to read X-rays," Bohn said. He prescribed antibiotics a third time, plus a salt-water rinse, and assured Vue and her mother "that it was only an infection," Bohn said.

Still, Vang advised Vue's mother that her daughter should see a specialist, Sillis said. But the mother wanted to wait, Sillis told jurors.

In the next few months, Vue saw several specialists, including the one Vang suggested. A tumor was discovered and Vue underwent surgery to remove the left side of her jaw.

Vue and her family believed "Dr. Vang so much it took three experts not to believe him," Bohn said.

But Sillis said Vue hadn't been to a dentist in many years and had skipped many office visits with Vang after her initial visit in November 2004. When Vue was in pain, giving her antibiotics "is the first line of defense," Sillis told the panel.

Vang also couldn't have saved Vue's jaw, Sillis said. "The only way to treat it is to remove the jaw bone," Sillis said.

The reporter can be reached at (559) 441-6434, or @beecourts on Twitter.

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