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Medical Malpractice Litigation Joins the Fight Against Opioid Misuse and Addiction

The gravity of the opioid crisis in this country is coming into full relief with more shocking headlines bombarding us every day. It is clear the ever cozier relationship between the medical community and the pharmaceutical industry was the genesis for this cultural addiction: www.theatlantic.com. Doctors admit it is “the biggest medical-initiated problem that ever has appeared in the United States.” Now everyone is paying the price.

My career in medical malpractice litigation tells me cases against health care professionals alleging negligence in prescribing and monitoring opioids will be on the rise at a rate in step with the exponential increase of opioid consumption and deaths since 2000.
For example, in 2016 a St. Louis jury awarded a 45-year-old man $1.4 million and his estranged wife got $1.2 million in addition to a $15 million punitive damage award against the physician who prescribed him addictive pain medication. With our justice system (both civil and criminal) unleashing its formidable power on the perpetrators and the populace firmly in the patient’s corner, opioid-related medical malpractice cases like this one will play their part. They will curb these nefarious practices by holding doctors and pharmaceutical companies accountable.

These won’t be your typical medical malpractice cases involving a blistering battle of medical intellectuals butting heads over the intricacies of the standard of care and whether the defendant breached it. Neither will the doctor start the case in their usual position of the vaunted, kindly healer. In opioid cases the tables may turn. Because of the high profile epidemic and the cascading legal consequences at all levels of government against doctors and the pharmaceutical companies that peddled their wares to them, plaintiffs are likely to have a greater advantage in opioid cases.

Of course, the physician’s negligence must still be proven by a medical expert, but the doctor’s defense will be more difficult to establish in the face of these devastating U.S. Government statistics.

  1. In 2016, health care providers across the U.S. wrote more than 214 million prescriptions for opioid pain medication—66.5 prescriptions per 100 people.
  2. As many as 1 in 5 people receive prescription opioids long-term for noncancer pain in primary care settings.
  3. More than 11 million people abused prescription opioids in 2016.
  4. Every day, more than 1,000 people are treated in emergency departments for misusing prescription opioids.
  5. More than 40% of all U.S. opioid overdose deaths in 2016 involved a prescription opioid.
  6. Drug overdoses claimed the lives of nearly 64,000 Americans in 2016. Nearly two-thirds of these deaths (66%) involved a prescription or illicit opioid.

With all of this in the public record and top of mind for American citizens across the economic spectrum who have been affected by the epidemic, health care professionals will be forced to account for the avarice that drove them to denigrate their oath to “Do No Harm.” Only then may their victims begin the healing process.

Laird M. Ozmon, Attorney at Law

GRAB YOUR LIFEJACKET, THERE ARE WAVES IN THE JURY POOL

Grab Your Lifejacket, There are Waves in the Jury Pool

The prospective jurors who are wading into the jury pool today are not like jurors from the early days of my career as a plaintiff’s attorney. The speed of the cultural changes and shifting attitudes has accelerated precipitously with the advent of technology in general and social media in particular.

For instance, the young people who step into the jury box today are sensitive to identity issues, are less likely to defer to an authority figure, and may have an entirely different relationship to money. Today’s Millennials, Gen Y and Z -ers, are used to accessing massive amounts of information and making a judgment with a click or a swipe—think dating apps like Tinder. Also troubling, their brains are not wired to pay attention for days, maybe even weeks, of trial testimony necessary to adduce the evidence the plaintiff needs to make a case (but that’s fodder for another blog). Their technological environment has created a social psychological unknown: neither a book, nor a cover.

So how does this play out in the courtroom? Anecdotally, there was a recent case involving dental malpractice. These cases traditionally garner a low recovery because the injuries are usually not catastrophic. The plaintiff alleged the dentist’s negligence caused a 25-year-old patient to lose some of her ability to taste. The jury, made up mostly of people under 30 years old, awarded $3 million. By any measure this is a substantial award for dental malpractice. Based on my experience, a 1990 jury would have awarded much less. What the defense attorneys in that case failed to appreciate was that young people, most of whom identify in some way by what they eat, post photos of food on social media, and have lived in a time when chef shows rule reality television and “foodies” are blogging about the latest restaurant hot spot. To them $3 million might not seem like a substantial amount of money for the partial loss of their taste buds.

While the plaintiff was the beneficiary of the defense attorney’s cultural tone deafness, this example raises myriad issues for trial attorneys. In my view it is our professional obligation to educate ourselves to understand and appreciate the views, experiences and attitudes of prospective jurors. Just as the rules of professional responsibility for lawyers added keeping “abreast of changes in the law and its practice, including the benefits and risks associated with relevant technology” as an element of maintaining competence, we must keep abreast of cultural and technological shifts that impact a juror’s willingness to award substantial sums to the plaintiff when it is warranted. It’s a modern application of the classic adage: know your audience. After all, the youthful juror could just as easily fail to appreciate fair compensation in another type of case.

Attorney Laird M. Ozmon

Facing Fear Pays Off for Plaintiffs

Facing Fear Pays Off for Plaintiffs

Around this time last year I was preparing for a trip to Australia and New Zealand looking forward to checking a few things off of my Bucket List, including Bungy Jumping at the world’s oldest commercial site in New Zealand, Kawarau Bridge. Notably, New Zealand’s recent tragedy is a keen and heartbreaking example of bravery conquering fear. I was fortunate to have been there in happier times.

I like to think of myself as brave and fearless but when you think about it, bravery is realized and cultivated in the face of fear. So maybe fearlessness isn’t always the goal. Sometimes fear is a good thing preventing us from engaging in unreasonably risky behavior.
In my work I see bravery all of the time. People who are facing their worst fears every day: permanent disability or scarring, the rest of their lives without a loved one. It makes me want to channel their bravery as I champion their cause through the challenges of our civil litigation system. It’s here where my being fearless can be a great asset.

When I encounter narrow thinking or rigid approaches to the law by judges or opposing counsel, I am emboldened to develop creative arguments or devise innovative legal theories on behalf of my clients. I have no fear about stepping into a courtroom and passionately advancing my plaintiff’s case even if it’s a new concept or unconventional approach. I have faced formidable obstacles, including the derision of judges, defense counsel and juries, but I am undeterred. Because, in my experience, courage coupled with fierce analytical thought and zeal pays off. This openness and creative thinking has compelled me to take many cases declined by successful attorneys in which I obtained multimillion dollar settlements or verdicts.

I have defeated motions that threaten to end my client’s case on dismissal or summary judgment, and I have convinced opponents that my case will win the day with a jury. Victory in such battles can be the difference between no recovery or full and fair compensation for my clients. If a handsome award for an injured victim is my reward, I will take a giant leap into my fears every day—hand me the bungy cord.

Attorney Laird M. Ozmon

Even Plaintiff’s Lawyer’s Hearts Get Broken

Broken heart with gavel in courtroom

As Valentine’s Day comes and goes, I’m reminded of the biggest heartbreak I’ve suffered in recent years. It involved a wife and her two young children who lost a beloved 32-year-old husband and father to medical negligence.

We knew it was an uphill battle as we litigated in an unfriendly county where self-interests were at stake in a tight knit community in which the hospital that employed the defendant doctor was a big political and employment player. In spite of this, for as long as I have prosecuted medical malpractice cases on behalf of patient victims and their families, I had not had a case about which I felt so confident.

Going into the trial we had a seven-figure offer that was a significant sign of defendant’s concerns, but was insufficient to compensate the victims. The defendant doctor was on the record admitting to facts that were indicative of his liability, while also completely conceding damages. In my entire career I had never had a physician testify as this defendant did that if he had transferred the patient from the urgent care across the hall to the emergency department (ED) the young father would have had the proper cardiac treatment and lived a long life instead of dropping dead of a heart attack just two weeks later.

In another career first, the coroner testified as an independent witness the patient’s autopsy showed the young father was indeed having a heart attack when the defendant doctor was treating him in the urgent care and sent him home rather than to the ED on the premises.

Although we fought mightily, inexplicably, the jury ruled in favor of the doctor. We were dumbfounded and heartbroken.

Never fear, I thought. This is a case tailor-made for a successful appeal. Nothing neutralizes an unfriendly venue like the Appellate Court that encompasses a greater geographic area and supposedly takes a fresh, independent look at the case. Even though appeals of jury verdicts are rarely reversed, we soundly believed at the very least the three appellate justices would give this family a new trial. That was not to be! It turned out the appellate court was equally inhospitable.

If anything, we trial lawyers are relentless, but our hearts can be broken too. So we filed for permission to appeal to the Illinois Supreme Court where few cases are given access and almost no medical malpractice cases are heard. In addition to the years of countless, uncompensated hours and the expenses of over $200,000, it appeared neither my client, nor I, would recover anything.

Notwithstanding that the odds were stacked against us, still I could not surrender. The final blow came just two weeks ago when our petition for leave to appeal was denied marking the end of the line for our shattered clients. Our hearts will always bear the scars of this blatant injustice, the consequences of which this young family will have to endure for the rest of their lives.

Attorney Laird M. Ozmon

The Awesome Truth About Trial Lawyers . . . Notorious RBG Was One of Us

Find a Special Place in Your Heart for Me and Fellow Trial Lawyer RBG

I like that the indomitable Ruth Bader Ginsberg and I have something in common. She started out as a trial lawyer, just like me. Not the much-maligned caricature of a greedy, unscrupulous individual; but the kind of person who puts her time, money and effort into fighting for the rights of this country’s disenfranchised citizens like women and minorities.

At this country’s inception the right to vote was restricted to white men. Women and people of color were treated like chattel and routinely suffered discrimination and injustice. They have had to fight for every right they have today. It is indisputable that trial lawyers stood shoulder-to-shoulder with them to get and keep these rights.

Over 100 years ago blacks and women finally earned the right to vote. In 1964 Congress passed Title VII of the Civil Rights Act prohibiting discrimination in employment. In 1972 Title IX outlawed discrimination against women and girls in education. Changing the law was just the beginning. The scope and enforcement of these laws and others like it have been the subject of litigation since their passage and stoked the fire in every trial lawyer who burns for justice for all.

This history has taught us justice does not come without a fight. The law evolves because trial lawyers are constantly pushing against the forces of evil and ignorance. We are advocates for civil and human rights and against discrimination.

Before she joined the Supreme Court in 1993, Justice Ginsberg was on the front lines of protecting the rights of women gained in Title IX. Today women fill over half of our universities and a record number are finally making their way into public office with 131 women elected to our current U.S. Congress. Her work is directly linked to these monumental advances.

In the course of my legal career Illinois had a $10,000 cap on damages for victims under the Wrongful Death Act. This means regardless of how egregious a person’s conduct was that caused an innocent person’s death the most their family could recover was $10,000. Over the course of my career, tort reform advocates sought three times to extend caps by imposing them on damages in personal injury cases. As president of the Illinois Trial Lawyers Association I spearheaded the fight to declare such caps unconstitutional. Today these caps don’t exist in Illinois. Victims have access to full and fair compensation without artificial barriers. So instead of lumping us in with the bad guys, think of the tireless Ruth Bader Ginsberg who typifies us trial lawyers and all that we give to right wrongs and cement positive change.

Attorney Laird M. Ozmon

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