May 24th, 2013

Lawyer Faints During Medical Malpractice Trial; Defendant MD Rushes to Assist

HansPoppeWell, you don’t see this every day — a lawyer trying a medical malpractice case passes out in court. Then the doctor that he sued rushes in to assist him. All in front of the jury.

The lawyer in question is Louisville, Kentucky’s Hans Poppe. You can see the video here, as the lawyers are at the bench discussing defendants’ motion for a mistrial.

The case arose from the negligent removal of a cervical collar that had stabilized a patient’s neck after an auto collision, with the patient then being rendered a quadriplegic. He subsequently died from infections at a long-term care facility. The defendants are the surgeon, Dr. Ryan LeGrand, and University of Louisville Hospital.

Aside from the human-interest element of a lawyer fainting and the defendant doctor rushing to assist, there’s an interesting legal issue here.

The defendants had moved for a mistrial because, on day 10 of the trial,  Poppe had played a portion of videotape deposition that mentioned liability insurance. This part was supposed to be edited out. (Many potential jurors ask the insurance question during the selection process, and we are, of course, forbidden to answer. It is deemed to be unfairly prejudicial to the defendant and not relevant to the issues.)

Poppe said that it was inadvertent that the unedited video was used; the defendants claim he did it on purpose to cause a mistrial because the trial wasn’t going well for him. Then the defendants asked for a whopping $125,000 in sanctions and fees, an astounding amount for a malpractice trial and one that strains the bounds of credibility to me.

What is most interesting, however, is that the point of whether the video-malpractice was intentional or not is actually moot in many respects. And that is because a mistrial would have been necessary anyway after the doctor rushed forward, in the presence of the jury, to assist. Life can be funny sometimes and this is one of those times.

I had a couple questions about all this, so I called Poppe. First off, he said that he fainted from lack of sleep, food and water — a situation anyone that ever stood in the well of the courtroom trying a case can relate to. Walking the proverbial high wire in front of  a jury can be enormously stressful, and the vast majority of lawyers can’t/won’t do it.

I asked if the defendants claimed the fainting was a ruse of some kind, and he said that no such allegation was ever made. It would seem, then, that a mistrial was going to happen regardless of the jurors learning about the insurance.

Finally, about that huge $125K request? He said that the hospital had three lawyers on the case. That is virtually unheard of where I come from in a medical malpractice case, and where I come from is lawyer-central. If there are any “extra” lawyers in cases here they are likely to be young ‘uns who are not there to participate, but to watch and learn.

Of course, if the judge thinks Poppe did this on purpose then a sanction might be forthcoming, but I have to assume that a judge would be viewing the entire conduct of the 10 day trial. An isolated act is likely to be forgiven; repeated acts might well be viewed with a different eye. But because the playing of the unedited video would ultimately be unrelated to the need for a mistrial, it seems the mammoth request for fees will be denied.

In any event, a quirky factual scenario with the fainting/assisting, what appears to be a serious legal issue regarding insurance mostly rendered moot by subsequent events, and a defense team with a legal meter apparently running so fast it’s hard to see the numbers fly by.

As I said, you just don’t see that every day.

(Updated 3/11/15: The insurance carrier proceeded to bring an action against Poppe, and this was the result)

 

August 21st, 2012

When your auto insurance isn’t really insurance

This op-ed by New York Assemblyman Matt Titone was published yesterday in the Staten Island Advance. He’s granted me permission to republish it. By way of full disclosure, I’ve lobbied the Legislature in favor of the pro-consumer bill that he discusses here:
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When Victor and Wilma Rao were hit by an alleged drunken driver in February, their world was torn apart.

Wilma suffered broken bones and bruises, and she was the lucky one. Victor was in a coma for a month, lost the use of an eye and an arm, and is still recovering from his injuries in a nursing home many months later.

The Raos expected that their car insurance would pay for the high pile of medical bills they have incurred while recovering from this terrible accident.

But there was a problem. The Raos had car insurance, but the driver who caused the crash did not.

While the Raos had responsibly purchased $100,000 in liability coverage, they did not know that they also needed to purchase additional Supplemental Underinsured Motorist (SUM) coverage to be protected if the driver who causes an accident does not have enough insurance himself.

Never heard of SUM insurance?

You are not alone – and that is the problem.

Many New Yorkers who buy car insurance have no idea that unless they opt to increase their SUM coverage, they will only be covered with the legal minimum of $25,000 – far less than the costs of a long recovery like the one that Victor Rao is only now completing.

Too many families find out about the critical need for proper SUM coverage only after it is too late. But new legislation in Albany (A.10784) could change that.

The SUM bill would require insurance companies to automatically offer SUM coverage at the same level as the liability coverage that drivers purchase, unless the driver himself chooses to reject additional SUM coverage after being informed of its benefits and low costs.

The SUM bill has been passed by the Assembly and the Senate and is now on the way to Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s desk.

Many states have similar laws, and it is well past time that New York drivers have the same rights to make informed choices when buying auto insurance.

As Wilma Rao told the Advance recently, had she and her husband known about the option of buying additional SUM coverage when they purchased their auto insurance, they would have “signed on the dotted line in a heartbeat.”

Thanks to the help and enormous generosity of their neighbors and the entire Staten Island community, the Raos will make it through their ordeal.

But drivers who purchase insurance should not have to rely on charity – they should be able to make informed decisions and purchase the insurance they need to be protected, even if the other driver in an accident is not.

As a member of the state Legislature, I urge Gov. Cuomo to sign this important consumer protection legislation into law, and I would urge all New Yorkers to call on him to do so.

[The writer represents the 61st Assembly Distrtict in the New York State Assembly.]

 

 

March 14th, 2012

House GOP Again Attempts Federal Power-Grab On Medical Malpractice Lawsuits

House Republicans like to claim that they believe in shrinking the power of the federal government and making sure that states retain the rights they were given in the Bill of Rights under the Tenth Amendment.

But that, apparently, is only what they say, not what they do. As I sit at my keyboard, Republicans are once again hypocritically attempting to subvert the power of states to make their own laws when negligent conduct by doctors injures patients. In a vote set for next week, the House is to decide on a bill that would, in part, cut a rationing board that could force Medicare cuts without congressional approval.  This board is the infamous (and mis-named) “death panels” that Sarah Palin tried to conjure up the debate over health care.

Because this cut would increase federal expenditures, the GOP figures it would take the opportunity to jump on a long-favorite subject of theirs: Granting federal protections and immunities to the medical profession when their negligence causes injuries to patients, under the guise of calling these cuts in federal funding. This would override state tort laws. Their touted theory is that, if there are less concerns about lawsuits, there will be less “preventive medicine.”

They call this tort “reform,” but we call it what it really is, a payback to the massive insurance-healthcare conglomerate that supplies so much cash to the Republican party. There is no other explanation, since the act of seizing more federal power and subverting state laws runs directly contrary to conservative political theory. Even conservative theorists agree. But the House Republicans are elected officials, and political theory takes a back seat for many of them to something vastly more important: Money.

It’s also worth noting that cutting the rights of people who have been injured does not decrease Medicare expenditures. They tried this trick in Texas, and they found that costs escalated even faster than they went up elsewhere. See: The Failure of Medical Malpractice Caps (Healthcare Costs Rise in Texas).

Is this a good time for me to say, “I told you so?” Back in January 2011, when the Republicans took control of the House, their first order of business was to read the Constitution, and pledge to defend it. At that time, I wrote:

But will Republicans really follow the Constitution when it comes to tort “reform?” My bet is no, based on a history of Republicans trying to limit consumer access to the courts. One academic favored by the right wing, Richard Epstein, arrogantly refers to the constitutional right to a civil jury trial as a “procedural feature.”

So there you have it. The Republicans are once again trumpeting tort “reform” despite the fact that it violates their own political theory of smaller federal government, despite that it grants protections to those that injure others due to negligence instead of holding them accountable, and despite the fact that it doesn’t actually do what they want it to do.

See also: House Attack on ‘Death Panel’ Doubly Hypocritical (Jay Bookman @ Atlanta Journal Constitution)

 

March 9th, 2012

Cuomo Attacks (Part of) No-Fault Fraud — An open letter to the Governor

Dear Gov. Cuomo:

First, let me tip my hat to you in going after No-Fault fraud, as you announced yesterday.  Your decision to shut down medical mills and strip the licenses of deceptive doctors that churn phony No-Fault claims is admirable. I know this follows on the dozens of arrests made last week by Preet Bharara, the United States attorney in Manhattan for this type of conduct, coming from largely Russian-born individuals living in Brighton Beach.

But — and you knew there was a “but” coming, didn’t you? — I think you have only addressed half the problem. And with No-Fault fraud now on your plate, I think I speak for many when I ask that you authorize a more comprehensive investigation.

For the problem of No-Fault fraud stems not only from doctors doing phony billing, but comes also from sham medical exams by insurance companies to deny benefits.

You see, in order to get No-Fault benefits, an injured person must be examined by a so-called “independent” doctor that is hired by the insurance company responsible for paying, and treatment authorized. But there are way too many accident victims who are denied those benefits after quickie 5-minute exams. In order to appreciate why that would happen, one only needs to understand a fundamental conflict of interest: The more denials a doctor issues, the more sought-after s/he is by the insurance companies for future exams. If you are the insurance company and knew Dr. Smith denied coverage 30% of the time and Dr. Jones denied it 90% of the time, wouldn’t you want to keep sending claimants to the one that saves you money?

New Yorkers surrendered certain rights with the birth of the No-Fault laws. We can no longer bring actions unless we have suffered a “serious injury.” In exchange, we are supposed to get guaranteed medical/economic benefits up to $50,000 in exchange for the premiums that we pay.

But what happens with this kind of insurance fraud? The insurance company benefits because many lawsuits can’t be brought and then a second time by stopping the benefits the claimants were supposed to receive.

Investigation of this fraud should be relatively simple, as you know from being our former Attorney General. If a doctor is seeing 10 patients in an hour for No-Fault exams, and churning out cookie-cutter denials, you can bet your last dollar that doctor isn’t doing it with the best interests of the patients in mind.

So I applaud your efforts to go after No-Fault fraud from those doctors running medical mills and over-billing. And if there are some attorneys in cahoots with the medical providers, go get them too.

But please don’t leave the legitimate auto accident victims, with legitimate injuries, out in the cold because of fraud being perpetrated from the insurance company end of things.

Respectfully submitted,

Eric Turkewitz

 

 

December 1st, 2011

New York’s Worst Auto Insurance Companies

Governo Andrew Cuomo released today, via the New York State Insurance Department, a list of the worst auto insurance companies in the state. Actually, the list also has the best, as it lists all 179 insurers.

The list is based on complaints to the Insurance Department that were upheld, divided by the dollar amount of premiums written. Thus, large insurers are not penalized for having more complaints, which one would expect since they write more policies. There is a problem on the other end, of course, in that for an insurer writing very few policies, just having one or two upheld complaints may make a huge statistical difference.

Nevertheless, since the fundamental business of insurance is to collect as much in premiums as possible and pay out as little as possible, the area is ripe for oversight and consumer awareness. This is especially true given the enormous sums of money that companies like Allstate, State Farm, GEICO and others pump into their advertising budgets to persuade consumers.

So, if you are in the market for new insurance, this is some of the hard data to look at instead of cute geckos or cavemen, as expressed by complaints from those who came before you to buy from that particular company.

If you have a complaint, by the way, don’t bother using the website on the report. They blew it on that one. The Insurance Department was recently combined with the Banking Department into the brand hew Department of Financial Services, and you can file a complaint at this site. (Someone apparently used a template for the report and forgot to update it.)

And with your complaint, those people seeking insurance in coming years may be able to learn from the problems that you experienced.

Consider this my public service bit for the day. You are welcome.