Legal Ethics

Lawyer's Theatrics Void $30M Jury Award

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The Ohio Supreme Court has overturned a record-breaking $30 million medical malpractice award, citing, among other courtroom misbehavior, a theatrical closing argument by the controversial Michigan attorney representing the brain-injured plaintiff.

Attorney Geoffrey Fieger’s courtroom antics, including his assumption at closing of the persona of his client, when he allegedly was an oxygen-deprived baby during the delivery process, were inappropriate and tainted the jury’s decision, the supreme court held yesterday in a 6-1 ruling, reports the Plain Dealer.

At one point, while in character as the baby, Fieger told the jury: “Doctors, nurses, I’m suffocating. Please help me to be born. I want to play baseball. I want to hug my mother. I want to tell her that I love her. Help me.”

“The justices also criticized Fieger for discourtesy, accusing witnesses of lying, and for his frequent interruptions of opposing lawyers,” the Cleveland newspaper recounts. “They cited Fieger for misstating evidence, wrongfully accusing defendants of covering up evidence and inappropriately injecting race and poverty into the trial.”

While Fieger’s courtroom misconduct was not the only basis for the trial court’s decision to grant a new trial, it was a sufficient basis, the majority says in a written opinion (PDF). “And, in this instance, a remittitur of damages is not the proper remedy, because the verdict was given under the influence of passion or prejudice and tainted by misconduct of counsel.”

The one dissenting judge said in his opinion that the judge should have held Fieger in check at trial, and said unsupported expert testimony rather than passion and prejudice caused by Fieger’s “obnoxious behavior” had resulted in the excessive verdict. Hence, he found that a remittitur (or reduction) of damages was the appropriate remedy, and recommended a $20 million award.

The plaintiff, who was born in 1987 and is now 20, must start the litigation process anew if he wants another shot at collecting damages, according to the newspaper.

Fieger didn’t comment, but his co-counsel, Chicago attorney Jack Beam, “accused the Republican-dominated Supreme Court of delivering a politically tainted verdict as a payoff to the medical and insurance industries,” the Plain Dealer reports.

“Sitting in his wheelchair, Walter Hollins has waited nine years for the justice that the Cuyahoga County jury rendered in his favor,” said Beam in a written statement. “Everyone who believes in the right to trial by jury should be outraged at this travesty of justice.”

As discussed in earlier posts, Fieger is no stranger to controversy. The Detroit attorney has in recent months been indicted concerning an alleged conspiracy to make illegal campaign contributions to the 2004 campaign of presidential candidate John Edwards (he says he’s not guilty) and has won a round in a case in which he was initially sanctioned for making critical comments about appellate court judges.

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