May 2nd, 2014

A Botched Execution (And A Good Lawsuit?)

lethalinjectionYou’d have to be living under a rock not to know about the botched Oklahoma execution of Clayton Lockett. Oklahoma, in its infinite wisdom, figured it would be just fine to give an experimental combination of drugs to its death row inmate.

It didn’t work out so well, as a vein apparently burst, he didn’t get the first drug that was supposed to knock him out, and he suffered mightily before having a heart attack and dying. Or at least that is what they are claiming.

But the part that really jumped off the pages of the stories was this: When it became evident that Lockett hadn’t been rendered unconscious by the first drug, and was in pain, prison officials lowered the shades between the witnesses and the condemned. They didn’t want anyone to see what The State was doing.

And anytime The State acts in secret, people should be alarmed. Especially when there is absolutely no reason for secrecy.

It is that very secrecy, in fact, that allows elected officials and their prison appointees to claim that the condemned don’t suffer when given various drug cocktails. Because if they suffered, then there would be an Eighth Amendment problem regarding cruel and unusual punishment.

The official timeline — or at least the first iteration of one, as none of the real witnesses in the execution chamber have actually testified — goes like this:

18:23  —  The drug midazolam was administered intravenously.

18:30 —  A doctor said Lockett was still conscious.

18:33  —  Lockett was unconscious, and vecuronium bromide and potassium chloride were administered.

18:42 — The shades for the witnesses were lowered. The official timeline does not say why, but there are accounts elsewhere that Lockett had appeared to be conscious in the previous few minutes.  From the New York Times: “Lockett, began to writhe and gasp after he had already been declared unconscious and called out “oh, man,” according to witnesses.”

18:44 – 18:56  “The doctor checked the IV and reported the blood vein had collapsed, and the drugs had either absorbed into tissue, leaked out or both,” according to the timeline.  The director of the corrections department then asked whether Lockett had been given enough of the drug combination to kill him, and the doctor said “no.”  “Is another vein available? And if so, are there enough drugs remaining?” the doctor was asked, according to the timeline. The doctor’s answer to both questions: “No.”

18:56 Execution called off

19:06 Lockett pronounced dead.

Missing from the timeline? Any acknowledgment that Lockett was in pain, contrary to the claimed protocol.

I know, you are shocked, just shocked, that the official timeline whitewashed what the condemned man was doing or trying to say.

Secrecy. It has surrounded the death penalty since we stopped public hangings. It now consists primarily of trying to make an inherently violent act — killing — antiseptic, and therefore palatable to the public. A firing squad would be quicker and more efficient, but then the killing becomes more real.

But the veil of secrecy, I think, can now be broken. Dropping the shades in front of the witnesses won’t work this time, despite wiping it from the official timeline.

Because he suffered in a way that was unintended, as others have  before him, the Estate of Clayton Lockett now has a simple claim for personal injury due to the negligence of prison officials, in addition to a civil rights claim for cruel and unusual punishment. This would be for the 24 minutes between 18:42 – 19:06.

Such a lawsuit, of course, really wouldn’t be about the money. It’s about lifting that veil of secrecy. Because of the suffering, the estate lawyers, if they brought such a suit, would be able to question each and every person in that execution room. And all of the people that ordered the drugs, devised the drug protocol, medically supervised the procedure and delve into all the ways it was tested (or that it wasn’t).

And so much more.

No, it really wouldn’t be about the money at all. It would be about ripping down the veil and using the disinfecting qualities of sunlight so that people can actually see how The State’s machinery of death works, to see what happened and why it happened.

And citizens can see exactly what they voted for and paid for.

 

June 4th, 2013

Dr. Robert Israel Slapped with 3-Year Probation Sanction (Updated)

It is unlikely that the name Robert Israel means much to many of my readers. But if you are a practicing personal injury lawyer in New York, it means a whole lot. And the fact that he was just placed on probation for professional misconduct means a whole lot more.

Dr. Israel has been, for many years, one of the most frequent orthopedists that defense firms and insurance companies turn to for medical-legal exams. These are done so that the defendants get an “independent” view of a plaintiff’s injuries, apart from the opinions of the treating doctors. Then he comes in to testify.  It’s fair to say that he has far more experience in the courtroom then the vast majority of attorneys in the country.

How many litigation exams has he done? When I cross-examined him five years ago, he said he was doing 30 of these exams per week; 1,500  per yearRobert Israel Cross (page 20).  He’s testified hundreds of times, and never for a plaintiff unless it was his own patient (page 33). That is a stunning business that also has a remarkable impact on those who’ve brought suit for personal injuries.

And what was he placed on probation for? Well, I wouldn’t be writing this post if it was for getting drunk and tossing his skivvies at a cop. That would be wholly unrelated to his practice and, I think, a cheap shot.

No, he was sanctioned because of his conduct doing these types of “independent” medical exams, which are more properly referred to as Defense Medical Exams.  (Because the docs that do these things aren’t being selected by the court.)

As per the charges against him, it all deals with his conduct performing these medical-legal exams by failing to take adequate, accurate and complete medical histories and by failing to note accurate, complete and appropriate physical exams. This is, as it happens, directly in accord with the testimony I took from him where he botched (deliberately or not, I don’t know) the history of my client, making statements of things that were never claimed in the lawsuit.

(By coincidence, I blogged that trial in day-in-the-life format in 2008. This was part one.)

How many victims were turned out of court due to Dr. Robert Israel’s misconduct?  Only he knows. Maybe. Will anyone turned out of court due to questionable testimony he gave sue him? Intriguing question, glad you asked.

As per the three-year probation agreement that he consented to, online here, he agrees that his:

…license to practice medicine in New York State shall be limited to preclude me from engaging in any practice as an Independent Medical Examiner as of March 2013. I shall not contract or agree to perform, nor perform Independent Medical Examinations.

<long low whistle>

Now here is a big legal issue for all those defense firms and insurance companies that thought they were being so smart in hiring Dr. Israel: The consent order does not preclude him from testifying. He can’t be an examiner for the next three years for sure, but the examination part is done. His records and reports (for what they are worth) are already made. There is no reason he can’t testify, other than the fact he will be (justifiably) torn to bits. But being torn to bits is not the same as being unavailable to testify.

That means there’s a good chance they will all be stuck with him. The insurance companies got the benefit of his exams previously and now they will get the downside. Karma. Sleeping with the devil. Laying down with dogs and picking up fleas. Choose your metaphor or proverb.

Will a judge allow the insurance companies to take a mulligan on the medical-legal exams? Will a plaintiff respond by saying, hey, if you don’t like the guy, let’s re-open all those cases where Dr. Israel previously testified?

Now if a doctor that performed an exam dies or becomes incapacitated during litigation, they would be entitled to another exam since s/he would be unavailable. But Dr. Israel is still available and is not precluded from his regular practice as an orthopedist.

The order goes  into effect this Friday, June 7th.

Update: July 2, 2013: In the comments is a discussion as to whether this sanction can serve as a basis for defendants obtaining a second defense medical exam, and pretending that Dr. Israel is unavailable to testify based on the order. That issue has now been resolved, courtesy of attorney Jonathan Fier who obtained an opinion on the subject from the Department of Health. That letter is here  Robert-Israel-OpinionLetter and states, in relevant part:

“…the order neither bars all testimony nor permits all testimony”

“If licensee, in the future, testifies about acts performed, observations or findings made or opinions and/or diagnoses rendered, respectively, at a time that predates the effective date of the Order, we would not consider that a reportable violation.”

“If, in relation to any Independent Medical Examination occurring at any point in time, the licensee engages in or testifies regarding any further act of observation. finding, opinion, and/or diagnosis (including but not limited to providing his opinion on any subsequent and/or supplemental medical  we would consider that to be reportable as a possible violation.”

 

 

September 24th, 2010

Walking the High Wire At Trial (Defendant pulls offer with jury out, but verdict not what they thought…)

The jury came back quickly. And that is usually bad news for the plaintiff. Fast verdicts usually mean the plaintiff lost on liability, so there was no need to discuss damages. That is what most people, who have stood in the well of the courtroom, would conclude.

But this week in the Bronx it was wrong. When the jury sent back the note that they had reached a verdict, the defendant revealed it was pulling a $750,000 offer off the table. And the verdict was $3,500,000.

After hearing the story through the grapevine, I contacted plaintiff’s counsel Peter DeFilippis. And he gave me the inside story of this case that had appeared as the lede in an article in the New York Post in 2004, regarding patients being hurt by hospitals understaffing nurses:  Plaintiff Loric Stothart nearly lost his left foot after it was burned in the hospital by a post surgical compression/heating boot. He pressed the help button for nearly 20 minutes before a nurse arrived and the device was finally cut-off of him. After several skin grafts and a vein transplant he now walks with a cane.  His expert testified that the use of this device was contraindicated for this patient in the first place.

According to DeFilippis, his trial man on the scene, Conrad Jordan, relayed that the note came back from the jury. Jordan wanted to make sure he knew exactly what was, or was not, on the table, and asked for the note to be held while this was firmed up and a final decision could be made. It was at that point, with a note in the hands of the court saying a verdict had been reached, that the defendant announced the offer was being pulled.

There are some who think that trial lawyers, for the most part, file suits and get paid quickly, doing little work. It’s an “easy money” theme that runs through some members of the press and commentariat.

But that isn’t how life or the law works. I’ve yet to meet a defense lawyer or insurance adjuster who believed that they were potted plants that were supposed to sit still while a plaintiff makes claims. They fight, fight hard, and have the enormous financial backing of multi-billion dollar insurance companies to make big bets (like pulling offers when the jury is coming back) and take risks that mere mortals are unable to handle. Plaintiffs’s attorneys, by contrast, foot the bill for often tens of thousands of dollars out of their own pockets based on the belief that a rational jury will act rationally and compensate the injured, and that they will get paid back and earn a fee.

I have to imagine that, when the 750K offer was pulled in this case, that the plaintiff’s heart sunk to the floor. Unless the plaintiff was independently wealthy, this was likely a financial gamble unlike any he had seen in his life.

I’ve settled several cases while the jury was out. It’s a tough spot to be for individuals as they are asked to make what might be life-altering decisions right there on the spot. And they must do so through the prism of injury and heartbreak that brought them to that point.

Want to know half the game of being a trial lawyer? Stress. With the pad by the bedside at night, we lay awake thinking of the questions we should ask, or failed to ask. Not because we want to lay awake thinking about it, but because the brain won’t shut itself down. And we hope in the end we’ve made the right judgments so that our clients can have some degree of piece of mind. And we go through the trial, and sometimes the settlement negotiations, walking a high wire without a net to catch us if we’re wrong.

And when all is said and done, someone with no knowledge of how the law works will trash talk the lawyers, fantasizing that it’s some easy little game where insurance companies just throw money at you.

 

September 3rd, 2010

Blame the Lawyers (Playground Edition)

Our back yard family swing set, circa 1967

My brothers and cousins, circa 1967

In a post at Overlawyered, Walter Olson notes an article that says swings sets have been removed from a playground “in part because of lawsuits over injuries.” A West Virginia school district had just settled a suit over an injured child for $20,000. The key words from the short blog post? “In part.”

You see, an examination of the article reveals that the surface wasn’t safe. So let me summarize this post before you read the rest:

  • Surface not safe
  • Child injured
  • Blame the laywers

Now let’s pick up where I left off, with the second link; an editorial to the business-minded Investors Business Daily. After relying on a few anecdotes to support its position that lawyers are clearly to blame for children being miserable, the paper starts quoting “authorities”:

“There is nothing left in playgrounds that would attract the interest of a child over the age of four,” Philip K. Howard, lawyer and author, wrote in the Wall Street Journal in 2008.

And then there is similar quote from Olga Jarrett, a Georgia State University professor, from remarks given to (surprise!) a tort “reform” group:

She blames “a fear of lawsuits that makes some school systems and cities design playgrounds that are completely uninteresting to kids.”

Oddly enough, my kids have no problem finding things that attract their interest on the playground, and they are clearly past the age of four. But then, my kids are looking to play, not looking to score political points in the debate over tort “reform.”

The editorial says that “America’s litigious society has changed the way kids play.” Well, yes and no. They still use the monkey bars the same way. But they aren’t doing so over a concrete surface, are they?

In the parks we’ve gone to over the past years, we’ve seen an abundance of swings, slides and things to climb on and scamper over.  I see happy faces running up, over and around equipment that was far safer than the public parks I went to as a kid. The only thing I see missing from my youth is the merry-go-round you stood on that others would spin ’round and ’round ’till you puked or were catapulted off onto the concrete. I know, some people liked to see their kids in danger.

Perhaps Investors Business Daily would like to return to the days of dangerous products, exploding Pintos, crippled children and Dalkon Shields. Perhaps. Unless, of course, the family member of one of the writers was hurt. Then, I’m sure, they would be singing a slightly different tune, like so many others.

Now about that photo of the kids on the swings  you see up at the top right?    That is a Turkewitz family photo shot by dad around 1967 in our backyard. I’m the kid in the red pants furthest from the camera, with my brothers and cousins scattered about. And note the soft surface my father installed. Even way back then we knew that you don’t want kids playing on equipment over dangerous surfaces.

 

May 6th, 2010

Starbucks Hot Tea Lawsuit: Merit or Not?

The case popped up yesterday when it was reported in Reuters: Suit was brought against Starbucks because a woman was scalded by tea. With no  facts other than the bare bones Complaint, the writer then jumped in to discuss the Stella Liebeck McDonalds coffee case.

Once in the hands of Reuters, it went to the Gothamist. If you Google Starbucks hot tea case now you will see no shortage of stories on it, including HuffPo, CBS and the UK’s Telegraph. The story has gone international.

Ted Frank picked it up at Overlaywered. Frank, however, cautiously withheld his opinion because the Reuters article “fails to indicate sufficient facts to determine whether [plaintiff’s] scenario reflects injuries from a spill that was her own fault or the fault of Starbucks.” David Lat mocked it at Above the Law, asking  of Frank, “Where’s the outrage?”

Facts, facts, facts. That’s what makes and breaks lawsuits.

So I called plaintiff’s counsel, Elise Langsam. She’s been practicing 30+ years and has handled her share of scalding cases, often from showers where the landlord failed to set the water temperature controls properly. I wanted to know what actually happened with the Starbucks tea.

Here’s the deal. The plaintiff is Zeynap Inanli, a pro tennis player. Pro athletes aren’t generally the type of people that trip over their own two feet. And she didn’t.

The tea was bought at Starbucks near Grand Central Station on Lexington Third Avenue. The barista — coffee house devotees love that pretentious name for a counterperson — put the lid on, but didn’t put it on tight.  As Inanli walked with the tea, that lid popped off and Inanli’s arm was scalded with the contents.

Inanli was admitted to the Weil Cornell Burn Unit for five days as a result.

Combine unsecured lid with the fact that the tea was so hot it caused second degree burns to the arm of the tennis player, and you have the elements of an action. So, two simple facts are at play: The failure to secure the lid and the scalding temperatures.

As Langsam told me, “You don’t put molten lava in a cup with a loose lid.”

Will Starbucks say otherwise when they answer the lawsuit and ramp up the press machine? I would expect so. That’s what defense lawyers and press flacks are paid to do. So one day, assuming that Starbucks has a competing set of facts, it will get presented to a jury who will look the witnesses in the eye and try to determine fault. Maybe one, maybe the other, maybe a little bit of both. What will the result be? I don’t know, I didn’t see it happen and I won’t be on the jury.

But is this the making of an article in Reuters and a growing news story? I wouldn’t think so. The unsecured lid seems like run-of-the-mill negligence. The scalding hot tea might be a local store problem, or a company-wide problem, but only time (and discovery) will tell with that. If it’s a company-wide problem with plenty of past complaints, then maybe there is news. But I don’t see it yet. [Addendum: Here is a particularly moronic report from Lisa Mateo at WPIX in New York, who did man-in-the-street interviews without bothering to find out how the incident happened. That’s journalism?]

All in all, seems like a painful problem for the plaintiff, but most likely a rather simple fact pattern. The complaint is here:Inanli-v-Starbucks-Complaint

Update:  The Media’s Failure in the Starbucks Hot Tea Lawsuit