Tuesday, August 6, 2002
County to Scrutinize No-Show Lawyer Blamed for $12.3 Million Verdict
By ROBERT GREENE, Staff Writer
County supervisors are expected to ask today for a closed-session briefing on a $12.3 million medical malpractice award that a Los Angeles Superior Court judge ordered when the county’s lawyer failed to show up for trial.
Judge Josh Fredericks made the ruling on July 18, which was to be the fourth day of trial in a lawsuit brought against the county by a woman who said she suffered brain damage because of negligence at Harbor-UCLA Medical Center.
Attorney George Peterson of Bonne, Bridges, Mueller, O’Keefe & Nichols had not appeared for trial all week. County lawyers said yesterday that Peterson was in trial in another courtroom, that he had advised Fredericks of his unavailability, and that the judge’s decision to go ahead with jury selection and trial in Peterson’s absence was a denial of due process.
Supervisor Yvonne Brathwaite Burke submitted a motion asking her colleagues to join her in demanding a report from the County Counsel’s Office on the incident. The briefing would be held on Aug. 13, a week before the county is due back in court on a motion to make periodic payments on the award.
Ultimately, Senior Assistant County Counsel Louis Aguilar said, the county will seek to vacate Fredericks’ ruling.
The county is struggling to keep its budget balanced and deliver vital services to its 8 million people at a time when a federal program to help operate the health system is due to expire. County officials have proposed the closure of clinics and hospitals.
The current projected deficit for the Department of Health Services is $710 million over the next three years. A $12.3 million malpractice award would strike another blow to a healthcare system that already pays out millions of dollars each year in negligence damages.
Burke asked for a recommendation on whether the Bonne, Bridges firm should be removed from the case and demanded that the county and its hired lawyers draft procedures to assure that nothing similar happens in the future.
“As a lawyer, it is difficult for me to understand how this could happen,” Burke said. “Certainly, there are many options, such as having County Counsel appear before the Court, having another lawyer in that assigned counsel’s firm appear on his behalf, or utilizing other contract counsel.”
But Aguilar said the county and the firm it hired did everything they could to preserve their rights when the scheduling conflict arose.
Aguilar said Peterson was already handling a wrongful death trial in the Compton courtroom of Judge Marlene Kristovich. That trial began July 8 and was in progress when Fredericks, whose courtroom also is in Compton, called the case in the suit of Veronica Oliveros against the county. Aguilar said Peterson appeared and asked to put the matter over, but that Fredericks said he would trail only until July 15.
“The judge asked what it would take to get another attorney to get up to speed to handle this case,” Aguilar said. “It’s a complicated case, and Peterson said it would take 30 days. And as it turned out there was no one available.”
The county then hired appellate attorney Martin Stein of Greines, Martin, Stein & Richland to petition for writ relief. But the writ was denied without written comment by two Court of Appeal justices in this district’s Div. Five—Presiding Justice Paul Turner and Justice Richard Mosk.
The third panel member, Orville Armstrong, filed a brief unpublished dissent.
“Petitioner has established that there is no other attorney in his office available to try this complicated medical malpractice case on short notice,” Armstrong wrote. “The court denied counsel’s requests. I conclude that under the circumstances alleged in the petition, the trial court abused its discretion in refusing to either continue the trial date or to trail the case in which counsel completed the trial in which he is presently engaged.”
The county then petitioned the state Supreme Court for relief, but Fredericks issued his directed verdict before the justices could act.
Fredericks could not be reached for comment. Aguilar said he was told the judge went on vacation.
Scheduling problems have continued to bedevil the county, Aguilar added, noting that he cannot get transcripts of the proceedings because the court reporter is unavailable.
Court records show the county filed an objection to the directed verdict and an application for a stay of judgment on July 23 pending receipt of the transcripts.
Fredericks may take up those matters on Aug. 20, when he is due to hear the county’s motion for periodic payments.
Oliveros, 30, suffered brain damage while at Harbor-UCLA for surgery to replace one of her heart valves in 1996. Her attorney, Rolando Hidalgo, said she suffered brain damage when she awoke from surgery unattended and removed a ventilator that was bothering her.
Copyright 2002, Metropolitan News Company