A torrent of civil lawsuits over alleged sexual abuse by a former employee of the Department of Veterans Affairs hospital in Leavenworth is expected now that a federal judge has refused to dismiss one of the cases.
Three more lawsuits were filed this week in federal court, bringing the total to 15 so far, and dozens more are expected to be filed in coming months.
The suits by military veterans accuse Mark E. Wisner, a one-time physician’s assistant at the hospital who held himself out as a doctor, of sexually molesting them during physical exams.
Wisner faces charges of aggravated criminal sodomy and sexual battery. Barring a plea agreement, he is set to be tried in April in Leavenworth County. He’s currently incarcerated in the Leavenworth County Jail.
Wisner’s lawyers could not be reached for comment.
The civil lawsuits collectively seek tens of millions of dollars in damages from the U.S. government, which operates the Dwight D. Eisenhower VA Medical Center in Leavenworth, where Wisner worked. He surrendered his license to the Kansas Board of Healing Arts in February 2015.
The lawsuits allege the government knew or should have known that Wisner was a danger to patients and had a history of providing improper medical care and victimizing patients. They also allege that he overprescribed painkillers and other medications.
According to the most recent lawsuit, filed Wednesday by U.S. Army veteran Russell Morris, Wisner was convicted of a sex-related crime in 1987, had been reported for sexually inappropriate conduct by a Kansas nurse in 1999 and was the subject of complaints by VA patients in 2011, 2012 and 2014.
The latest spate of lawsuits comes after U.S. District Judge Carlos Murguia on Jan. 31 denied the government’s motion to dismiss one of the lawsuits, brought by Darren Mathis, a disabled veteran. The government had argued that, because Wisner’s conduct was outside the scope of his employment, it wasn’t liable for his actions.
Identical rulings are expected in the other lawsuits because they’re so similar.
Dan Curry, a Kansas City lawyer who represents plaintiffs in three cases and is co-counsel on several others, says he plans to file up to 40 more lawsuits now that Murguia has ruled.
“This gives us a plan and a map, and we know they’re not going to be dismissed,” he says.
At a four-hour-long hearing on Friday, a federal magistrate judge ordered the cases consolidated for discovery purposes. Wisner, who was ordered to appear at the hearing, said very little, according to lawyers who were present. He was shackled and watched by two security guards.
Robert L. Kinsman, a Kansas City lawyer who represents two of the plaintiffs, blames structural problems at the VA for what happened to his clients.
“Imagine coming back from active duty seeing the things that they saw, then getting treated the way they did at the VA,” he says. “And then not realizing what was actually going on until years later when they either see it on the news or they receive a letter saying that the VA is investigating Wisner and they want to know if they’ve ever had any, for lack of a better term, weird stories from the care that they got from him.”
Kinsman is referring to a letter his clients received from a federal investigator in 2015, which is when they learned Wisner had been accused of inappropriate conduct.
“When they got that letter they knew immediately, and it took away all the psychological well-being they had at the time,” Kinsman says. “They feel like they fell through the cracks, which a lot of veterans do at the VA.”
Dan Margolies is KCUR’s health editor. You can reach him on Twitter @DanMargolies.