Oral surgeon gets last laugh over boar-tusk prank

Oral surgeon Robert Woo may have pulled off the ultimate practical joke.

He stuck fake boar tusks in a patient's mouth while she was sedated, took pictures, and later, after she sued, he convinced the state Supreme Court he deserves $750,000 for being abandoned by his insurance company.

The court, ruling 5-4, said Thursday that Fireman's Fund Insurance Co. had a "duty to defend" the Auburn oral surgeon when he was sued. Inserting the boar tusks "conceivably fell within the [insurance] policy's broad definition of the practice of dentistry," wrote Justice Mary E. Fairhurst, in the majority opinion.

The ruling restored a jury verdict that had been overturned on appeal.

Justice James Johnson vigorously disagreed. In one of two dissents, he wrote, "Any reasonable person would not define his actions as a dental procedure. ... "

Rather, Johnson wrote, Woo "humiliated" his patient and the court's "decision rewards Dr. Woo's obnoxious behavior and allows him to profit handsomely. ... "

The saga of Woo, the boar tusks and the insurance company that hoped not to pay for a policyholder's attempt at comedy goes back to a pot-bellied pig named Walter.

Walter was the pet of Woo's surgical assistant and a frequent office topic. The assistant, who worked for Woo for about five years, adored Walter. But ever the jokester, Woo couldn't resist barbs about barbecuing Walter.

The assistant had asked Woo to replace two of her teeth with implants. Along with ordering the necessary partial bridges, Woo ordered a set in the shape of boar tusks.

During the procedure, Woo and his staff removed the assistant's oxygen mask, inserted the tusks and took photos, some with her eyes pried open. Woo then completed the planned dental work.

After she saw the photos, the assistant never returned to the office. Woo didn't know it at the time, but the woman had been sexually assaulted as a teen. The boar's-teeth incident triggered memories and spurred a case of post-traumatic stress disorder, according to a psychologist's report in the court file.

The Seattle Times generally does not name victims of sexual assault.

The woman filed the lawsuit in 1999, with claims including battery, invasion of privacy, infliction of emotional distress and medical negligence.

Fireman's had declined to defend Woo because his actions did not fall under "dental services," documents said.

Woo settled with the assistant for $250,000, then took Fireman's to court, claiming the company should have defended him.

In 2003, a King County Superior Court jury said Fireman's had breached its duty and it awarded Woo $750,000 in damages. He was also awarded attorney fees and reimbursement for the $250,000 he paid to settle the original lawsuit with his employee. The state Court of Appeals overturned that ruling, but left the $250,000 settlement intact.

After Thursday's ruling, Woo will wind up getting the more than $1 million initially awarded.

Woo's lawyer, Dick Kilpatrick, said his client was pleased, "but more for the principle that insurers shouldn't abandon their policy holders."

In a prepared statement, Fireman's said, "We are disappointed with the decision."

Johnson, in his dissent, said Fireman's won't be the only one to pay. "Ultimately, patients in Washington will pay for Woo's malfeasance through their doctors' higher costs and insurance premiums," Johnson wrote.

Christina Siderius: csiderius@seattletimes.com