Tusk, Tusk: Prankster Dentist Wins Case Against Insurer

July 30, 2007

A Washington-based oral surgeon ended up with the last laugh after being sued for jokingly implanting fake boar tusks in the mouth of his anesthetized assistant.

Dr. Robert Woo, originally from Hong Kong, took photos of her porcine dental work that later made the rounds. The assistant, Tina Alberts, feeling humiliated, quit and later sued Woo.

When Woo’s insurance company, Fireman’s Fund, would not deal with the lawsuit, Woo settled out of court with Alberts for $250,000 and then sued Fireman’s. A Superior Court jury agreed with him and awarded him $750,000, plus the out-of-court settlement he paid.

The insurance company won the next round, with the state Court of Appeals saying the prank had nothing to do with Woo’s practice of dentistry and that the carrier had no duty to represent him in the lawsuit. But the state Supreme Court later restored the award for Woo.

Alberts’ family raises potbellied pigs and she frequently talked about them at the office where she worked for five years. “Woo made several offensive comments about her pigs,” the court said. Woo later said his jest was part of “a friendly working environment” he fostered in the office.

One day when Woo was performing oral surgery on Alberts to replace two teeth with implants, he installed temporary bridges that he shaped to look like boar tusks. While she was still under anesthesia, he took photos, some with her eyes propped open. Before she woke up, Woo removed the tusks and put in the proper replacement teeth.

Woo said he did not show her the pictures, but staffers gave her copies at her birthday party. Stunned, she went home and never went back to work. Woo tried to apologize; but Alberts did not respond.

She sued alleging outrage, battery and invasion of privacy. Fireman’s told Woo his policy did not cover such claims and declined to pay for his defense. The practical joke was “intentional” and not a “normal business activity,” the insurers said.

“Woo was delighted with the ruling,” said his lawyer, Richard Kilpatrick, who described Woo as a kindhearted and fun-loving man, chagrined an office prank turned out so badly.

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