Doctor-lawyer project tackles malpractice

Opinions 2008/03/03 19:23   Bookmark and Share

Doctors and lawyers in Montgomery County are doing something unusual: working together.

Members of the county's bar association and medical society, along with Abington Memorial Hospital, tomorrow are launching a pilot project they hope will keep more malpractice disputes out of court.

Lawyers and doctors will work in teams to mediate conflicts between patients and the hospital or doctors. The hope is that the new approach will resolve problems more quickly and humanely, without the demonization of both sides that can occur in malpractice battles.

Whether it will save money remains to be seen. Project leaders say that is not the primary goal.

John J. Kelly, Abington Memorial's chief of staff, said he wanted to avoid the "harshness" of litigation. "At the end of the day, I think everybody walks away feeling like it's a much more productive process, and it's a healing process," he said of mediation.

"I think litigation makes everything so much more painful for everyone, and I'm not sure healing ever occurs."

Planning for the project started three years ago after a nudge from the state Supreme Court. It encouraged counties to look at alternatives to traditional court battles as doctors threatened to leave Pennsylvania because of skyrocketing malpractice-insurance rates. Not much has happened elsewhere in the state, but doctors and lawyers here pursued it because "there's got to be a better way to do things than the way we've been doing them," said Mark Lopatin, a rheumatologist, who led the medical society's part of the effort.

People on both sides say the current system is emotionally draining, even when you win.

"Clients hate courtrooms," said Robert Morris, president of the Montgomery County Bar Association. "I haven't ever had a client that wanted to get in the witness stand."

The project deals with unhappy patients and their families through a two-step process. In the first, doctors and nurses at Abington have been trained to listen to such patients and explain what happened in as much detail as possible. Project leaders say many people who sue do so primarily to find out what happened.

If that is not enough, patients can move to mediation, a process that helps them hammer out a settlement with their doctors. The mediator shuttles between the sides, bringing their positions together. Unlike a judge or arbitrator, the mediator does not decide the case. Instead, the patient and doctor - or more likely their attorneys - determine an acceptable outcome. Usually that involves money, but patients also often want an apology and assurance that steps will be taken to prevent future mistakes.

If the sides are still fighting, patients still have the option of going to court.

In this region, Drexel University College of Medicine's doctors have the longest-running mediation program. Theirs often uses a team approach, pairing lawyers who typically represent patients with those who defend doctors. Abington's new program creates even more unusual teams. A lawyer with health experience will be the lead mediator, and a doctor will be his "medical partner."

"It's precedent-setting, this project," said Jane Ruddell, a former health-system lawyer who now runs a company devoted to alternative dispute resolution. "It's really trying to change a culture."

Ruddell ran a training session last week in the bar association's Norristown office to train about 30 doctors and lawyers to be mediators. Many of the lawyers had previous experience with mediation, but the daylong program was an eye-opener for the doctors, who understood for the first time how hard and time-consuming it was to sort through strong emotion and find common ground.

In a training exercise, the doctors and lawyers were split into groups for some role-playing. Abington Memorial obstetrician-gynecologist Robert Michaelson played the mediator for one. The bar association's Morris was an angry woman with cancer, and Mark Pyfer, president of the Montgromery County Medical Society, was her even angrier husband.

The patient in the case had had foot pain, which the doctor thought was caused by a pinched nerve. The patient decided not to have surgery the doctor recommended and later lost part of her leg after the cancer was discovered.

Michaelson got into trouble almost immediately, waiting too long to separate the warring parties. He ran out of time without getting close to a settlement, but Morris, who is a trained mediator, and Pyfer, a novice, proved a good team.

"I thought she was negligent because she never paid much attention to me," Morris said petulantly.

"Dr. Reynolds can say she's sorry, but I don't think she has any idea what it's like to go through life with one leg," Pyfer chimed in. Then he asked for $10 million.

Doctors came away from the experience understanding why the lawyers will take the lead in mediations, at least in the beginning.

"The most striking thing about this was . . . how difficult this is," said Lopatin, the rheumatologist.

Frank Murphy, a lawyer who attended the training, said it might be harder than the hospital anticipated to avoid malpractice filings and to persuade lawyers to be totally open with one another. Legal-filing deadlines, strategy, and payment agreements give lawyers an incentive to file in court and, sometimes, to stretch out the proceedings.

Advocates of mediation say it is often cheaper than court because there are fewer exhibits and medical experts to pay for.

Participants usually sign confidentiality agreements, a step that supporters say spares everyone embarrassment. The downside of the secrecy is that mediated cases create no legal precedent and leave no public record. Monetary settlements are reported to the National Practitioner Data Bank. But its information is available only to hospitals and professional groups, not consumers.

Some doctors also worry that mediation will be just one more step on the way to court. That has not been Drexel's experience. Of 40 cases that have gone to mediation, only three were unresolved.

Those involved in the Montgomery County experiment say it is more likely to give patients what they really want: early action, an apology, and information. "Patients want answers. That's what they want more than anything," said Sheila Stieritz, a former director of patient safety at Abington Memorial, who consulted on the pilot project. "And if it's something really serious, most patients want it not to happen to anybody else."

top

Logan lawyer appointed to 1st District Court

Attorney News 2008/03/03 19:23   Bookmark and Share
Logan lawyer has been appointed to the 1st District Court by Gov. Jon Huntsman. Kevin Allen is currently the senior partner in the firm Allen and Ericson in Logan. He must be confirmed by the state Senate.

Allen will succeed Judge Gordon J. Low. "Kevin has a genuine desire to serve the people of our great state and his distinguished previous experience proves he will carry on the admirable service of Judge Gordon Low," Huntsman said in a statement announcing the appointment Monday.

Allen also has been a partner with Barrett and Daines in Logan and was a lieutenant commander in the U.S. Navys Judge Advocate General Corps.
top

Lawyer in Bribery Case Says Witness Lied

Topics in Legal News 2008/03/03 19:22   Bookmark and Share
A key government witness lied to the grand jury that indicted several attorneys on charges they conspired to bribe a state judge, one of the accused lawyers said in court papers filed Monday.

Zach Scruggs, an attorney whose well-known father and law partner also face bribery charges in the case, is asking a federal judge to dismiss his indictment due to alleged government misconduct.

Scruggs' lawyers say grand jurors heard false and misleading testimony from an FBI agent and from former attorney Timothy Balducci, who has already pleaded guilty to conspiring with Scruggs and others to bribe state Circuit Judge Henry Lackey.

Scruggs' indictment is a product of their "patently false and misleading" testimony, his lawyers argue.

"It has been clear since the filing of this indictment that the government has no credible evidence that (Zach Scruggs) knowingly participated in any scheme to bribe a judge," the defense lawyers wrote.

U.S. Attorney Jim Greenlee didn't immediately return a call for comment Monday. Balducci has represented himself in the criminal matter. His office number has been disconnected.

A trial for Scruggs; his father, prominent plaintiffs lawyer Richard "Dickie" Scruggs; and fellow Scruggs Law Firm attorney Sidney Backstrom, is scheduled to start March 31 in Oxford.

Richard Scruggs, a brother-in-law of former U.S. Sen. Trent Lott, R-Miss., made tens of millions of dollars from tobacco and asbestos litigation. His role in a landmark settlement with tobacco companies was depicted in the 1999 film "The Insider," starring Al Pacino and Russell Crowe.

Last week, U.S. District Judge Neal Biggers Jr. rejected a different motion by the three defendants to dismiss the charges based on the government's "outrageous conduct." However, Zach Scruggs' attorneys didn't see transcripts of grand jury proceedings until last week.

Zach Scruggs claims the transcripts, when compared to wiretap evidence, show Balducci lied to the grand jury and mischaracterized Scruggs' knowledge of and participation in the alleged conspiracy.

Prosecutors say Balducci was acting on Richard Scruggs' behalf when he allegedly tried to bribe Lackey for a favorable ruling in a dispute with other lawyers over $26.5 million in fees from a mass settlement of Hurricane Katrina insurance lawsuits.

The FBI arrested Balducci Nov. 1 and sent him into the Scruggs Law Firm wearing a body wire. Balducci later testified that he met with Zach Scruggs and Backstrom that day and told them Lackey wanted $10,000 for the favorable ruling.

However, Zach Scruggs' lawyers say a recording of that Nov. 1 conversation shows that Balducci used confusing, coded language while their client "only participated in an ordinary conversation about how a judge's order reads."

Zach Scruggs' lawyers also accuse FBI Special Agent William Delaney of giving grand jurors a misleading account of taped conversations between the suspects in the case.

"The Government seeks to convict (Scruggs) on coded words uttered after he is disengaged from a conversation and on actions perceived through a presumptuous lens; yet they indicted a man relying on testimony they knew was facially false and wholly inaccurate," they wrote.

top

Supreme Court May Re-examine What Is "Indecent"

Topics in Legal News 2008/03/03 19:21   Bookmark and Share

This week, after more than 30 years, the Supreme Court may reopen the debate over what constitutes an "indecent" broadcast. The issue before the court is the usually accidental, so-called "fleeting expletive" that sneaks into an over-the-air broadcast, such as Bono's "This is really, really f---ing brilliant" comment at the 2003 Golden Globes, which was broadcast on NBC.

After receiving complaints from viewers, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) moved to crack down on broadcasters who air "isolated or fleeting expletives" during daytime and early evening hours. Last year, Fox and other television networks sued to block the new policy, and an appeals court in New York put it on hold. Now, the FCC is asking the Supreme court to clear the way for the crackdown to be enforced. The justices may act on the agency's appeal as soon as today, and if they vote to hear FCC vs. Fox TV, arguments will be heard in the fall, reports the Los Angeles Times.

The appellate judges in New York felt that the FCC's new policy was arbitrary and vague, as it does not specify that all expletives will trigger fines regardless of the circumstances. At the same time, the appellate judges hinted that a true ban on all broadcast expletives would violate the 1st Amendment's free-speech guarantee. At the same time, broadcasters have said they have no desire to air expletives, but they're just trying to make sure that when an unscripted expletive is used - most often by a celebrity who is not a network employee - it does not result in a large fine. To help monitor the situation, broadcasters have instituted five-second delays on awards shows and some other live programming, but an occasional expletive can still slip through.

"It's like the Maytag repairman," said Rick Cotton, general counsel for NBC Universal, according to the LA Times. "You're expecting that after sitting in front of a console for literally thousands of hours that at a particular moment, on a completely unexpected basis, a person will hear it and will react in time."

top

U.S. court rules against Bayer's Yasmin patent

Headline Legal News 2008/03/03 19:20   Bookmark and Share
A U.S. district court ruled against the validity of Bayer Schering Pharma's patent for its contraceptive drug Yasmin, the German drug company said late on Monday.

This was the result of a patent challenge by generic manufacturer Barr Laboratories, Bayer said in a statement.

"Bayer disagrees with the court's decision and will consider its legal options in this regard," the company added.

Bayer Schering's contraceptive drug Yasmin has annual sales of more than one billion euros. Sales of Yasmin in the United States came in at 321 million euros ($486.9 million) last year, it said.

top

Court Leaves Diabetes Drug Case Intact

Court News 2008/03/03 19:19   Bookmark and Share
A divided Supreme Court is leaving intact a ruling favoring people who sued a pharmaceutical company, saying they had been harmed by a drug to combat diabetes.

The dispute stems from several suits against Warner-Lambert over its diabetes drug Rezulin. Warner-Lambert is now owned by Pfizer. The Supreme Court split 4-4 in the case, with Chief Justice John Roberts not participating.

The users of the drug are relying on a Michigan law to allege that the pharmaceutical company engaged in fraud by misleading federal regulators to get the drug approved. The Michigan law shields pharmaceutical companies from product liability lawsuits, unless they committed fraud.

At issue in the case is whether that fraud exception, which allows lawsuits to proceed, is pre-empted by federal regulation of the pharmaceutical industry.

The 2nd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in New York ruled that the exception to the Michigan law was not pre-empted by federal regulations, enabling the plaintiffs to pursue the case.

Twenty-seven Michigan residents say they suffered personal injuries caused by Rezulin, a drug that federal regulators approved despite risks to the liver and cardiovascular system.

top









Disclaimer: Nothing posted on this blog is intended, nor should be construed, as legal advice. Blog postings and hosted comments are available for general educational purposes only and should not be used to assess a specific legal situation. Nothing submitted as a comment is confidential. Nor does any comment on a blog post create an attorney-client relationship. The presence of hyperlinks to other third-party websites does not imply that the firm endorses those websites.

Law Firm Website Design by Best Lawyer Website Design- Attorney Web Design That Works