A former Clovis resident who sued her Fresno plastic surgeon after photographs of her breasts surfaced on the internet was awarded just $18,000 in damages Monday by a Fresno County Superior Court jury.
Mandi Stillwell, 39, contended that Fresno surgeon Dr. Enraquita Lopez was negligent and violated her duty to keep a patient’s medical information confidential. Stillwell sought $300,000 in damages for lost wages and emotional distress.
But after deliberating less than three hours, the jury gave Stillwell much less.
The dispute began in March 2013, when Stillwell, a well-known photographer in San Francisco, asked Lopez to give her breast implants, a breast lift and a tummy tuck. In her two-week trial, Stillwell testified that because she and Lopez were on friendly terms, she gave Lopez written consent to photograph her naked torso before and after the surgery. In doing so, Stillwell said it was her understanding that the photos were to help promote Lopez’s business, Aesthetic Laser Center, and that her identity would remain anonymous.
But five months after the surgery, Stillwell said her life began to unravel after a man she met through an internet dating site told her that he found photographs of her bare breast on the internet by Googling her name.
Stillwell testified that seeing the photographs caused her to cry, sink into depression and miss work. She said it also increased her anxiety because she worried whether men had seen her breasts online and were “gawking at me.”
In closing arguments on Monday, Fresno attorney Michael Ball, who represented Lopez, told the jury that Lopez and her staff mistakenly put Stillwell’s photographs on the internet. Once Lopez learned of the mistake, the photographs were taken down within a few days.
Ball said $300,000 in damages was too much because in April 2014, less than a year after the photographs were published online, Stillwell was proudly showing off her body on her public Facebook page.
Bay Area attorney Arvin Lugay, who represented Stillwell, however, argued that Lopez failed to uphold her duty to protect her patient’s confidential information. Lugay pointed out that Stillwell signed a consent form that said she could not retract her permission, when the law says she could. In addition, Lugay said Lopez’s written company policy says it is paramount to protect a patient’s medical information.
“This was not one mistake. It was multiple mistakes,” Lugay said. “It was systemic and longstanding pattern of neglect.”
According to Lugay, Stillwell was especially vulnerable because she was raised in home in Oklahoma where her mother constantly belittled her about her weight and body. Ball agreed that Stillwell had an abusive childhood, but told the jury that Stillwell’s emotional problems surfaced long before the photographs were published.