Judge awards $5,000 to pair of doctors who nearly kill critically injured man

By Dustin Alexander-Pérez|Metro News Los Angeles|
Originally Reported July 25, 2016 5:50 PM PT  - Updated Wednesday, March 7th, 2018

A Wisconsin man was threatened with arrest and ordered to pay $5,000 in damages after a pair of doctors nearly caused his death and left him permanently disabled. Supporters are now launching a crowdfunding campaign to keep the injured man from becoming homeless.

Thomas Hapka of Southeast WI is an IT professional, was just hours from leaving for New York to start his dream job. But a last-minute stop at a local chiropractor turned into a medical nightmare that ended his plans and nearly ended his life.

Hapka suffered a massive stroke when the chiropractor used too much force, tearing the vertebral artery in Hapka’s neck. “Tom told me it felt like his world immediately began to spin wildly out of control as if the Earth had snapped off its axis. He toppled to the office floor, frightened, uncontrollably dizzy, and unable to stand or walk,” recalled Kathy Hapka, the man's sister.

The vertebral artery provides circulation to the posterior portion of the brain including the visual cortex, cerebellum, and brain stem Neurological symptoms caused by unilateral vertebral artery injuries are the result of decreased arterial blood flow to these portions of the brain that the vertebral artery supplies,” stated Dr. Greg Vigna who is a medical physician and attorney in Los Angeles.

Hapka’s condition reportedly continued to deteriorate as the chiropractor repeatedly massaged and manipulated his neck. Medical professionals later determined this could have completely severed the damaged artery and killed the injured man instantly. It is reported that the chiropractor then left Hapka on the floor incapacitated and in the care of a young receptionist with no medical training. Witnesses say frightened patients began leaving his office.

Chiropractors are bound by duty to diagnose medical conditions that require attention. A chiropractor can be held liable for failing to diagnose or improperly diagnosing a patient’s medical condition if a reasonable chiropractor would have done so,” said Martonio Marinaccio, a retired personal injury lawyer. “It's indescribable that anyone calling themselves a medical professional would leave one of their patients in that desperate situation!”

According to 9-1-1 records obtained by Metro News, Paramedics weren’t called until hours later. When Hapka was finally transported to a local emergency room, that is when Kathy Hapka states her brother's nightmare would truly begin. The attending physician, who had a rather lengthy documented history of malpractice, reportedly refused to examine Hapka for more than an hour.

Family members report the doctor had Tom wheeled into a secluded hallway and left unattended with no explanation. Hospital records obtained from that day list only one other patient in the emergency department and more than enough staff on duty to be able to have assisted Hapka further. 

Metro News Milwaukee requested a statement from the unnamed hospital’s former administrator, but never received a reply.

When the doctor finally examined Hapka, doctors we spoke with said he clearly overlooked the obvious signs of brain trauma, inexplicably failed to order a brain scan and misdiagnosed Hapka with an ear infection. The seriously injured man was sent home with a dangerously swollen, bleeding brain and medications that only worsened his condition.

More than 24 hours later, Hapka’s mother realized her son wasn’t sick; he was dying. He was rushed back to the same local emergency room where a different doctor ran further tests. The results were misread and Hapka's family was told he had a large tumor near his brain stem. Medical records clearly document a second incorrect diagnosis Hapka received at this emergency room in less than 48 hours.

It wasn’t until Hapka was admitted to a regional medical center that doctors finally diagnosed the life-threatening brain injury and confirmed it was more than likely caused as a result of the chiropractor’s manipulation.

Hospital records obtained report Hapka was now very close to death. Hapka's family maintained a vigil at his bedside for days as he drifted in and out of consciousness and doctors speculated if he would survive.


Dr. Vigna stated, “Studies indicate that stroke rates may exceed 50% in those with vertebral artery injuries that are untreated. Unilateral and bilateral vertebral artery injuries may cause a posterior circulation stroke that may carry a mortality rate up to 18% and cause profound disability. Therefore, asymptomatic and symptomatic vertebral artery injuries must be treated.”

Hapka was eventually sent home to be cared for by elderly parents and face his new reality. His sister said, “Tom was suffering from debilitating dizziness, severe vertigo attacks that would strike without warning several times per day, incredible anxiety, and poor coordination. Things like taking a bath, dressing himself, or making a sandwich were suddenly Herculean challenges he wouldn’t be able to overcome independently for months.”

Spinal manipulative therapy (SMT) has been recognized as an effective treatment modality for many back, neck and musculoskeletal problems. One of the major issues of the use of SMT is its safety, especially with regards to neck manipulation and the risk of stroke,” said Walter Herzog, Ph. D., University of Calgary.

Hapka’s friend, Russell Scanlan, remembers the struggles Hapka faced after he came home from the hospital. “We all felt so defeated,” Scanlan said. “Just days earlier, Tom was an athletic, healthy person with a really bright future. But after the injury, he was helpless. His career, his independence and his exciting new life in New York were all gone.”

Unable to work and with medical expenses mounting, Hapka filed a lawsuit against the chiropractor who injured him and the hospital that misdiagnosed him. That effort added to his family's emotional trauma and was seen as a miscarriage of justice by many close to the case.

Hapka’s home state had recently changed their malpractice laws, making it nearly impossible to sue a doctor, hospital, or even a chiropractor. The judge ruled against Hapka despite documented, conclusive proof that the chiropractor had injured him and the delay in care caused by the botched emergency room diagnosis had worsened his brain trauma.

Most injuries stem from negligent manipulation of the body. The lion's share of feasible chiropractor malpractice cases I've seen implicate tears of the vertebral and carotid arteries from inattentive handling,” said Marinaccio. “In Mr. Hapka's case, a chiropractor made adjustments to the patient’s body that either caused new injury or made a pre-existing injury worse. It's very clear there was nothing wrong with Mr. Hapka when he entered the office that day.”

Hapka was home-bound with severe vertigo from his brain injury on the day of the proceedings and the court granted him permission to appear by phone. However, the judge abruptly changed his mind and threatened to have Hapka arrested for not appearing in court. He also ordered Hapka, who was disabled, weak, and unemployable, to pay $5,000 in damages.

Hapka's sister spoke with Metro Today's host in a televised interview. "This was a shocking miscarriage of justice," Kathy said. "My brother was nearly killed by two doctors in one day, his care was repeatedly delayed and his life was shattered. It's appalling that there was no justice for him and he's now disabled, financially ruined, and left without any stability.”

Marinaccio said, “There are some truly bad chiropractors out there that need to be held accountable. Unfortunately, Wisconsin laws have so many clauses that completely screw injured patients. It's not fair and nobody is doing anything about it.”

Today, Hapka still suffers from crippling episodes of dizziness that leave him incapacitated for hours or days at a time. This, coupled with severe PTSD, makes it impossible to hold down a regular job, and he needs rehab not covered by his health insurance.

Hapka’s elderly parents drained their retirement savings and took out a second mortgage to cover his immediate care expenses so there will be no inheritance. Hapka is in danger of being homeless when his parents die because of a lien the county put on their house when his father needed nursing home care.

Supporters will be launching a crowdfund campaign to help provide for Hapka’s ongoing medical expenses and other needs.

Update: Sadly, Thomas Hapka's father passed away in December of 2017 and just weeks earlier, Tom's uncle passed away also. As of the writing of this article, Mrs. Hapka, Tom's mother has incurred several long-term illnesses and continues to physically and mentally deteriorate. Tom was terminated from his job of over seven years and is still in need of any support that can be offered.

Dustin Alexander-Pérez is an investigative reporter for Metro News Network in Los Angeles and the host of the recent radio talk show “Metro Today” on Metro America Radio.