Mandi Stillwell says she was shamed about her body as a youngster.
If she put butter on her vegetables, her mother would say, “That’s gross.” If she gained weight, her mother would pinch her and call her “pig” and “white trash.”
Years later, the former Clovis resident became a well-known photographer in San Francisco. But her harsh childhood memories were always in the back of her mind, she says.
In March 2013, she believed she found a solution to her lack of self-esteem: She asked Fresno cosmetic surgeon Dr. Enraquita Lopez to give her breast implants, a breast lift and a tummy tuck. After the surgery, she felt good about herself, Stillwell says.
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Five months later, her life began to unravel, and Stillwell blames the doctor’s publication of photos of her naked torso linked to her identity as the reason. She’s suing in Fresno civil court in a case that tests the limits of culpability for an online mistake.
Stillwell gave Aesthetic Laser Center written consent to photograph her naked torso before and after the surgery. Stillwell testified that it was her understanding that the photos were for business promotion and that her identity would remain anonymous.
I trusted her.
Mandi Stillwell said of Dr. Enraquita Lopez
The photos were online by early June. Stillwell says all was fine until Aug. 15, 2013, when she received a telephone call from a man who had been communicating with her through an online dating service. He said he wanted to see what Stillwell looked like, so he searched her name on Google and discovered the photographs of her bare breasts and torso.
“It totally triggered what happened in my childhood. I had lots of anxiety, lost a lot a sleep and cried a lot.”
Now, Stillwell, 39, is asking a Fresno County Superior Court jury to award her damages for emotional distress caused by Lopez’s alleged negligence and breach of fiduciary duty. Lopez’s attorney, Michael Ball of Fresno, told the jury that Lopez and her staff accidentally published the photos with Stillwell’s identity attached and removed them once Stillwell alerted them.
“This was a very short-term and totally unanticipated glitch in 2013 from ALC’s changes to its website, and there was no other person besides Jane Doe known to have been affected,” Ball said.
Stillwell’s lawyer, Arvin Lugay of Tiburon, said Lopez and her staff were negligent and reckless in linking Stillwell’s name to the online photographs.
“The unauthorized publication of personally identifiable patient photographs on the internet can be very damaging to the well-being and reputation of patients, especially those who have an internet business or presence,” he said. “When something like that happens, doctors need to be held accountable when they fail in their affirmative duty to protect the privacy of those patients.”
Stillwell is identified only as Jane Doe in court documents. She didn’t want her photograph taken for this story, but her name and achievements have been mentioned in court. The trial in Judge Mark Snauffer’s courtroom resumes Monday.
In 2013, Stillwell began getting attention for her use of new photo techniques. In April 2014, a San Francisco television station named Stillwell “one of the best up and coming visual artists in the Bay Area.” In addition, the report mentioned that Stillwell took the book cover photograph for “Cracked Not Broken,” Amazon’s No. 1 best-seller in summer 2013.
But in court on Wednesday, Stillwell painted a different image of herself, one of an abused child who got involved in a violent marriage that ended in divorce and separation from her son.
Stillwell said she and her older sister lived with their mother in Oklahoma when they were young. “I was constantly criticized about my body and weight,” she told the jury. “It made me feel insecure.”
Then around age 8, she and her sister moved to Clovis to be with their father. She said she went to grade school and high school in Clovis, but wanted more freedom, so she returned to Oklahoma to finish high school. By then, her mother was involved with a man who was “super physical,” she told the jury.
By 1999, Stillwell had a husband and a son. She told the jury that the marriage didn’t last long because her husband was abusive. In 2002, they divorced.
Stillwell told the jury that the custody fight over her son lasted three years. She ended up giving up, she said, because her ex-husband “had turned my son against me.”
Around 2011, she moved to California and began a career as a photographer, working weddings and selling photographs from a booth at Ghirardelli Square in San Francisco. Life was good, but there was one thing missing, she told the jury: “I definitely have intimacy issues. I find it difficult to be naked in front of men.”
She blamed her childhood. Giving birth didn’t help, she said, because it stretched her skin. “I had trouble looking in the mirror. I see myself like I’m a monster.” She thought cosmetic surgery would help, she told the jury.
She said her father was dating a woman who knew Lopez and vouched for her skills. Stillwell said she and Lopez worked out a deal in which Stillwell would take photographs of the doctor and staff for the company website. In exchange, the doctor would give her a discount on her breast augmentation surgery and tummy tuck.
Stillwell said she considered Lopez a friend, and willingly signed a consent form that allowed Aesthetic Laser Center to photograph her breasts before and after surgery, intending to include the photos in an online promotional gallery.
This was a very short-term and totally unanticipated glitch in 2013.
Fresno lawyer Michael Ball, defending Aesthetic Laser Center
In court papers, Ball gives this account of how the photographs with Stillwell’s name attached ended up online:
Lopez downloaded the photographs onto her laptop computer and transferred them to a disk or thumb drive and gave it to one of her employees. The employee created a file for the photographs on a work computer, then labeled the file with Stillwell’s full name. Once the photographs were saved on the work computer, the employee uploaded the photographs onto the company website.
Unknown to the defendants, Ball says, the manner in which the photographs were saved and uploaded made them searchable by the patient’s name. Stillwell called the doctor and her staff on Aug. 15, 2013. Lopez took the photographs off the company website immediately, Ball said, and took a few days to make sure “the photos were no longer searchable.”
Stillwell testified that though the photographs came down within a week, the incident caused her to have increased anxiety and miss work. She said she became depressed, withdrawn and irritable, constantly worrying if men had seen her breasts online and were “gawking at me.”
“I’m sure any woman can understand what I’m talking about,” she told the jury. “It’s the biggest insecurity for the world to see.”
But Ball says in court documents that Stillwell was not “overly upset” and in fact had asked Lopez in an email on Aug. 20, 2013, if she could perform “lipo in my big ass” because Stillwell said she was headed to Oklahoma in a few weeks. Stillwell told Lopez that she would pay her later once she got a student loan. “Please don’t think I’m taking advantage of the situation, cuz I’m not,” Stillwell’s email says. “I really want to look better when I go to a place I haven’t been to in almost three years and be 60 pounds lighter.”
When something like that happens, doctors need to be held accountable.
Tiburon lawyer Arvin Lugay, who represents Mandi Stillwell
On the witness stand, Stillwell explained her email. “I trusted her,” she said of Lopez. But over time, she said, Lopez never accepted responsibility for her negligence. Instead, she blamed her “tech people.”
“She lied to me and hid it from me,” Stillwell testified. “I’m still pretty shocked by it all.”