Lessons learned when a doctor sues an attorney

Several years ago I was hired by a plaintiff’s attorney as an expert witness on a personal injury case.  He paid the fee in advance but the night before the trial, his co-counsel called me to review the case.  It was clear that she did not have a thorough understanding of the case and I spent two hours with her on the phone trying to bring her up to speed.  I also typed out questions that I suggested she use when taking my testimony and E- mailed them to her as well as brought her a copy the morning of the trial.  I told the co-counsel that I would be submitting an additional fee of $600 or $300/hour for the extra work that I did.  I was advised by the co-counsel to inform the lead attorney and told him about the extra fee before the trial.  He told me that all I had to do was send him the bill and he would pay the additional fee.  I gave my testimony and learned later that the verdict was given in favor of the plaintiff.

The bill was sent to the lead attorney but he ignored several bills and several phone calls.  I decided to take this to the state bar association and submitted a complaint to the ethics committee of the state bar association.  They tried to mediate the dispute and “suggested” that he pay the $600.  He refused and they informed me that they could only make suggestions but could not compel him to pay the fee.

At Christmas time, I sent him a note suggesting in the Judeo-Christian spirit of the holiday season that I would accept him donating $600 to charity and that would acknowledge that I did the two hours of additional work on behalf of his client.  This, too, was ignored.

I shared my story with an attorney friend who offered to help me.   My attorney suggested that he write the plaintiff’s attorney a letter informing him that I have retained an attorney and that his letter requested payment or that we would file a demand for payment in small claims court.  My friend assured me that this would most likely result in getting paid.  After several contentious phone calls between my attorney and the plaintiff’s lawyer resulting in only name calling on the part of the plaintiff ‘s lawyer, he advised me to file a suit in small claims court.  The filing fee was $600!  There was also $200 of additional fees for pleadings, motions, etc.

Shortly after filing the suit in small claims court, I received a notice that the plaintiff’s attorney filed a defamation of character suit against me.  My attorney assured me that if we won the case in small claims court, there would be no grounds for defamation of character as the truth is not defamation.

My attorney suggested we take the deposition of the co-counsel to confirm that the extra work was indeed done on behalf of his client .  Soon thereafter, my attorney received a call asking “how much is going to take to make this go away?”  The plaintiff’s attorney finally paid the $600, the court costs, and my attorney’s fees.

What did I learn?

First, it takes a lot of time and energy to teach someone a lesson.   I estimated I spent over a dozen hours writing letters, speaking to my attorney, and attempting to have the situation mediated by the state bar association.  I certainly could have used my time more productively, like contributing to this blog!  Second, it put tension and pressure on my wife and family who against proceeding with litigation for only $600.  Finally, I placed undo stress on my friendship with my lawyer who never complained and never made me feel badly about seeing the process through to completion.

What would I do the next time?  I would go as far as sending the demand letter for payment from my attorney but would have stopped after that and just let it go.

What did I do with the award?  I gave it to my synagogue to the social justice fund.  I certainly didn’t want to enjoy or profit from this ill-gotten award.

Bottom line:  Teaching someone a lesson is expensive and probably not worth the energy or effort unless it is your child or someone you love.  So if you are in a similar situation, look before you leap.

Neil Baum is a urologist at Touro Infirmary and author of Marketing Your Clinical Practices: Ethically, Effectively, Economically. He can be reached at his self-titled site, Neil Baum, MDor on Facebook and Twitter.

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  • http://twitter.com/Skepticscalpel Skeptical Scalpel

    Here are more lessons:

    1. Never trust a lawyer.
    2. Never trust a plaintiff’s lawyer.
    3. You think you taught him a lesson. You didn’t.
    4. You aren’t charging enough.

  • james nichols

    attorneys are assholes, case in point.

  • bladedoc

    How about “when you lie down with dogs . . . . ”

  • NormRx

    Most lawyers are a boil on the ass of humanity.

  • DavidBehar

    Dr.Baum: As a a plaintiff expert, you damaged the health system, and helped to take money from the care of other patients.  You deserved the problem you described. Your testimony should be reviewed, and you should be expelled from all medical associations if found faulty or frivolous. If you are an academic physician, the chances are you were junior to the clinicians in the case, in every way, including raw IQ and experience. You do not get to set the standard of care for doctors senior to you.

    Because, tort liability is a substitute for violence, the absolute legal immunity of your testimony, even if false and wrongful, justifies direct action by patient groups whose care you damaged.

  • kjindal

    i wonder what lesson you will learn when you are sued for a bad urologic outcome, and the plaintiff’s “expert” is some 28-year-old pediatrician who hasn’t set foot in an O.R. since med school…

  • http://twitter.com/gcgeraci Gaspere (Gus) Geraci

    My attorney has advised me on more than one occasion that, “Principles are expensive.”

  • http://pulse.yahoo.com/_2LRZNHDZS6DU45WQ567LPQ7CMI ninguem

    He trusted a trial lawyer to be ethical.

    Quick, run outside and see if you can find the turnip truck. Get him back on, and make sure to latch the gate so he doesn’t fall off again.

  • Idahobeet

    Dr., I am glad you followed through.  He needed to learn and other people learned,b believe me, about that attorney (the word got around) and not to mess with you when you have conscientiously done your job. That attorney is not the norm.  I really dislike most attorneys and especially ones like the one you ran across.  However, I agree that there are too many like him out there (I know, I am a attorney-and I would never do what this jerk did to you!); further even one is one too many.  

    You did the right thing, and no, I do not believe you damaged the health care system, nor did you cause malpractice insurance rates to rise (they are high only because the insurance companies make on average 25% a year or more and like more.  Then they hire defense firms that really churn the billings instead of settling things.) 

    I am sorry it took going to the very steps of the courthouse.  I can agree that the legal system hurts patients more than the healthcare system is harmed by honest expert witnesses-which you were.  Thank you for doing that service.Most attorneys would have paid that bill at once.  I consider this attorney’s behaviors unethical in being extremely unprofessional (he sounds unhinged, actually!), then waiting until he was about to be slammed to take care of the issue.  Something is not right with an attorney who knowingly becomes abusive when he/she knows they are wrong.Sometimes, you have to get into it with bullies so the bullies know that even if they win once, it will be at a high cost-it slows them down a bit the next time it happens.  Dr., you stood up to a bully.  Thank you.

  • http://pulse.yahoo.com/_6C65YWGCC7P5C6CGMMBK7VMFXE JenniferL

    Get everything in writing when dealing with the hypercorrupt lawyer industry. 

  • http://pulse.yahoo.com/_6C65YWGCC7P5C6CGMMBK7VMFXE JenniferL

    Oh, and an ethics complaint to the bar association would be appropriate here as well.

  • William Sullivan

    Try using a deposition retainer agreement before performing the work in which the retaining attorney agrees to pay your fees, interest, collection costs and all attorneys’ fees if your fees are not paid within 7 days.

  • http://www.practitionersolutions.com Niamh van Meines

    Being resilient is a wonderful characteristic and fighting for right behavior is incredibly important. The way to endure it is to see it from a different perspective. Letting a bully like that get the best of you would be a ticket to continue with his bad behavior. At every turn, we need to be showing people what types of behavior is acceptable or our society gets run by dictators and self interested bullies. You speak more of success & less of personal sacrifice from my point of view.