BRYAN, Texas (CN) - Kool Smiles, a chain of dental clinics, has reached a settlement with parents of 618 Texas children who claim its dentists performed unnecessary work and charged it to Medicaid.
Plaintiffs' attorney George Mauzé, of San Antonio, told Courthouse News he's under court order not to talk to the media about the settlement for 60 days while the parties negotiate the terms.
Kool Smiles, of Marietta, Ga., has more than 100 clinics in 17 states. "Kool Smiles is built on the belief that all families have the right to receive quality dental care," the company says in its ad on YouTube.
Its owner is Tu Tran, a Vietnamese man who received a dental surgery degree from the University of Colorado, according to a company website.
Kool Smiles' business model is to open clinics in poor neighborhoods to treat "underrepresented" patients who are covered by Medicaid, it says on its YouTube ad, which touts the diversity of its dentists.
The PBS show "Frontline" reported in 2012 that Kool Smiles exploited Medicaid by installing crowns on children's teeth rather than fillings, an allegation Kool Smiles denied.
Kool Smiles' legal troubles in Texas started in January 2013, when 15 parents sued three of its affiliates and four dentists, according to the latest Texas lawsuit against the chain, filed Nov. 18 in Bryan.
The January 2013 case spawned 19 more lawsuits in Texas against Kool Smiles and its current or former dentists, according to the latest complaint, in Brazos County Court.
To streamline the litigation, the state's Multidistrict Litigation Panel, administered by the Texas Supreme Court, transferred the cases to state Judge Noe Gonzalez in Hidalgo County in March this year for pretrial proceedings.
The lawsuits kept coming.
"In November 2015, additional suits were filed on behalf of 490 minor children against Kool Smiles and numerous defendant dentists. In all, suits have been filed on behalf of approximately 618 minor children," according to the complaint from Brazos County.
That lawsuit states that in November "most of the parties agreed in principal to a global settlement" from which plaintiffs may opt out.
Attorney Mauzé called the complaint a friendly petition, filed because the parties have reached a tentative settlement involving minor plaintiffs that needs court approval.
Mauzé said in the filing that he will move to appoint ad litem attorneys for the minor plaintiffs to protect their financial interests from possible meddling by their parents, which is standard procedure for friendly lawsuits.
The complaint includes allegations from parents of 11 children, ranging in age from 2 to 8, who claim dentists at the Kool Smiles' clinic in Bryan subjected the kids to painful and unnecessary treatments that it billed to Medicaid.
The parents say Kool Smiles' dentists strapped their children to papoose boards and did not sedate them before extracting their teeth, installing crowns or doing root canals.
In the complaint, Mauzé calls this group of plaintiffs the "Brazos County Fortress plaintiffs."
He affirmed they are part of the settlement, but refused to clarify what distinguishes them from the other plaintiffs, citing the gag order.
"They're somewhat included. It's a little more convoluted. I don't want to stir up a problem with this at this point because we've got some hearings on it next week," he said in a Dec. 11 phone interview.
The fortress plaintiffs sued Benevis LLC fka NCDR LLC dba Kool Smiles, Kool Smiles PC, Dentistry of Brownsville PC dba Kool Smiles and three dentists who treated their kids at the chain's Bryan clinic: Nguyen Hathuc, Tuyet Nguyen and Anissa Reagor.
The fortress plaintiffs seek punitive damages for fraud, gross negligence and conspiracy.
Hathuc did not respond to a phone message left with an office manager at his Houston clinic. Reagor, through the secretary of her Nacogdoches clinic, said she was too busy with patients on Dec. 11 to talk. A receptionist at Kool Smiles' Bryan clinic said Nguyen stopped working there about three months ago.
In addition to the Texas cases, Mauzé and Kool Smiles are involved in a federal lawsuit.
Three Kool Smiles affiliates sued Mauzé, his law partner James Bagby and their San Antonio firm in Houston Federal Court in 2012.
The clinic operators claimed the law firm made "false and unsubstantiated representations" on a website set up to solicit Kool Smiles' patients.
The site is no longer operational and Mauzé did not respond when asked via email if a judge had ordered his firm to take it down.
The website asked parents "whether their children were (1) 'strapped down to a papoose board or (2) 'upset, crying, terrified, or traumatized,'" and if the clinics did unnecessary work on their children's baby teeth, according to Kool Smiles' 2012 complaint.
The clinic operators seek damages for defamation and trademark infringement. A three-judge panel with the Fifth Circuit declined in March 2014 to dismiss the defamation claim, affirming a trial court ruling.
That case is pending before U.S. District Judge Diana Saldana in Laredo.
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