Surgeon’s death, ‘unjust’ conviction stir up doctors

Rhodina Villanueva, Timothy Gerard Palugod - The Philippine Star
Surgeon�s death, �unjust� conviction stir up doctors
Dr. Benigno Agbayani Jr. and his ‘self-portrait’ are posted on Facebook by a relative on Oct. 20. The drawing apparently shows the University of the Philippines' Oblation statue with its head bowed and with barbed wire wrapped around it. Agbayani graduated from UP's College of Medicine in 1991.

MANILA, Philippines — Doctors are up in arms over the conviction and death behind bars of orthopedic surgeon Dr. Benigno Agbayani Jr., with one group claiming in a Change.org petition that he had been “wrongly accused and convicted” of malpractice after a patient complained of post-operative site infection.

Agbayani is considered the first Filipino doctor to be criminally convicted in a civil suit for alleged reckless imprudence resulting in serious physical injuries.

The Change.org petition was created on Oct. 31 and addressed to the Judicial Integrity Board under the Supreme Court (SC) over a civil case filed by Saul Hofileña Jr. in 2006.

Hofileña, a lawyer who graduated from the Ateneo College of Law in 1985, claimed that the tool Agbayani used during surgery on his knee was unsterilized, resulting in an infection. Hofileña made a complete recovery, court records showed.

The SC’s Third Division dismissed Agbayani’s petition for review and upheld his conviction by the Metropolitan Trial Court and the Court of Appeals in 2021.

On May 25, 2023, he was arrested and sent to the Manila City Jail, where the 58-year-old doctor died of a heart attack on Oct. 5.

“It is regrettable that he died while serving his sentence in prison and still in the course of exploring his options to help clear his name... The (Philippine Medical Association) supports his family members and friends in their quest to continue the same and seek another chance for judicial review,” the PMA said in a statement.

“Sadly, not only was the old case made to suddenly move forward at record speed, but it also resulted in his conviction despite all indications of his innocence,” the Concerned Doctors and Citizens of the Philippines said in a statement.

“We strongly support the request for clarifications regarding the legal issues related to his incarceration. We firmly believe that this intervention is necessary to address the growing concerns among the medical practitioners who fear a similar fate in the future,” the Philippine Orthopedic Association said in a letter of support dated Oct. 26.

Vulnerable to litigation

The Philippine College of Physicians (PCP) said its members will continue to adhere to the highest standard of care for patients.

“We are all vulnerable to litigation and that in itself is something that we need to ponder now,” PCP president Dr. Rontgene Solante said in an interview with “The Chiefs” on Cignal TV’s One News on Nov. 4.

Public health advocate Dr. Maricar Limpin said patients should be given the “complete picture” and be informed if something went wrong during a medical procedure.

“All of us now will be more wary and conscious that everything should be explained to the patient but that will really take a lot of time,” she added.

‘Disregard for due process’

In the Change.org petition created by Phi Kappa Mu, the medical fraternity said that Agbayani’s “unjust conviction” has been “marred by disregard for due process, procedural errors and misapplication of rules, leading to a void judgment.”

In a statement sent to The STAR, Agbayani’s family and friends said that he declined the opportunity to apply for parole as it required an admission of guilt, which he believed would preclude the possibility of a case review.

“He was sentenced to serve one year and a day, as recommended by the Supreme Court. At the time of his passing, he had already spent four months in incarceration and was set to be released on good behavior by November 2023,” they said.

“Iggy often quoted this legal doctrine in our conversations during visits to Manila City Jail: ‘the law holds that it is better that 10 guilty persons escape than that one innocent suffer.’ He was not just speaking for himself, but for us all,” they added.

In a Facebook post on Nov. 3, a relative of Agbayani showed a copy of court records indicating that a clinical pathologist who testified for the prosecution in 2009 stated that the late doctor’s negligence could not be established.

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