Students in Fordham Law’s inaugural Medical Malpractice Litigation Practicum concluded their class on May 2 with an exciting mock trial that featured doctors and residents from St. Barnabas Hospital Emergency Room in the Bronx as co-participants.
Six Law School students acted as attorneys in the fictional medical malpractice trial, delivering opening and closing arguments before a jury of St. Barnabas residents, attending physicians, and medical students, and performing direct and cross examinations of actual St. Barnabas doctors, during the event held in the Gorman Moot Courtroom. 3L students Mariana L. Gallastegui, Rebecca Laitman, and Anthony Makarov served as plaintiff’s attorneys. Meanwhile, Rebecca Rosen, Parul Monga-Bhatia, and 2L Manpreet Monica Uppal represented the defendant, played by St. Barnabas Dr. Rikin Shah.
The medical malpractice mock trial, believed by its organizers to be the first of its kind, resulted from a year of planning and cooperation between the Law School and hospital. Dr. Mark A. Curato, assistant director of St. Barnabas’ Emergency Medicine Residency Program, invented a precise, high-fidelity medical record from scratch that allowed for good arguments on both sides, and the hospital supplied doctors for depositions and generated expert reports. The case involved a 57-year-old man who suffered a fatal heart attack 11 hours after being discharged from the emergency room with a diagnosis of anxiety. The plaintiff alleged the death was caused by the negligence of his emergency room doctor.
“What’s unique about this class is not only the participation of residents and teachers from St. Barnabas but the facts of the case—the witness statements and the depositions—were developed organically by the law students themselves,” said course instructor Adam Shlahet ’02, who also serves as director of Fordham’s Brendan Moore Trial Advocacy Center. The trial’s unscripted nature meant students had to think and react strategically, as they would in real life, Shlahet added.
Curato conceived the seminar as a way to provide emergency residents an immersive experience that exposed them to medical malpractice litigation from the point where they are sued to a trial’s end. Likewise, the doctor observed that such a program would offer law students a level of medical authenticity their education previously lacked and, as such, contacted Fordham Law Professor James Kainen, the Brendan Moore Chair in Advocacy. Kainen served as the final mock trial’s judge.
“We thought it would be a win-win, and that everybody could benefit if we donated our medical expertise to their legal education and they donated their legal expertise to our medical education,” Curato explained.
The mock case’s developments, such as Shah’s deposition, provided Curato an opportunity to discuss general steps of malpractice with his 40 residents during their weekly Wednesday morning academic conference.
“It’s very opaque when you find out you’re being sued and you’re a passenger on an unpleasant ride that you don’t know where it’s going,” Curato said. “Hopefully now they will all understand the general steps of what it’s like to be a defendant in a medical malpractice case.”
On the legal side, the seminar illustrated to students how a trial often hinges on, in addition to expert testimony and analyzing medical records, a jury deciding which side it believes most. After closing arguments, attorneys gathered around the jury box to listen to jurors recount which arguments worked and which didn’t.
“The human element emerges as the most important factor,” Shlahet said. “That’s the exact lesson you can’t get from a book.”
For 3L Rebecca Rosen, the class introduced aspects of medical malpractice litigation, trained her on interviewing witnesses and developing persuasive arguments, and provided opportunities to conquer her speech anxiety. During the mock trial, Rosen cross-examined the actress playing Mrs. Lucas, the wife of the deceased Gene Lucas, and questioned the defendant Dr. Shah. Prior to taking the stand, the doctor shared with Rosen that he felt nervous—an admission that helped distract the aspiring attorney from her own apprehension about speaking before the room and focus on the points the doctor needed to convey to the jury.
“It felt really great to participate in this mock trial and utilize all the skills we’ve developed during this class,” said Rosen, who will start with New Jersey-based Schenck Price Smith & King LLP in September. “This class, in general, provided us a lot of valuable lawyering skills that we can use across our careers.”
Fellow 3L Mariana L. Gallastegui agreed with Rosen’s assessment of the class’ import. Gallastegui delivered the plaintiff’s opening statement and cross-examined the defense’s expert witness, Dr. Daniel Murphy, chair of St. Barnabas’ Department of Emergency Medicine. In the course of the mock trial, Gallastegui, a member of Fordham’s Brendan Moore Trial Advocates, experienced two firsts: speaking before a jury of her peers (as opposed to a competition evaluator) and questioning a medical expert who has previously testified in court.
“Even if they’re not necessarily interested in medical malpractice litigation, this class will help potential lawyers in any field as they enter their career,” said Gallastegui, who plans to pursue a medical malpractice defense career in her native Florida. “It takes all the lessons we’ve learned in law school and helps us apply them to the real world and real practice. I would highly encourage any student to take this class, if they have the opportunity.”
Anticipating the demands of a changing legal profession is one of the six objectives of the Law School’s strategic plan, Fordham Law Forward.