It was two weeks before the big trial was due to start, and Reid was about to meet with his expert for the first time in midtown Manhattan. It was a warm Friday evening in August, which meant that most other New York professionals were already at their summer homes in the Hamptons. Such luxuries were not an option for Reid. He had to get ready for this trial. A trial he had to win.
This was to be Reid’s first medical malpractice jury trial, and he knew that the testimony of his medical expert would be crucial if he was to persuade a jury that the defendant had done something wrong.
Dr. Mancini’s office couldn’t be described as impressive, Reid thought, as he sat in the small waiting room, looking up from his notes on the case. The dull, windowless walls were adorned with nothing other than torn, yellowing diagrams of feet.
The room was silent except for the juddering clank of the minute-hand on an old clock on the wall, as it reluctantly pushed itself around its dusty wheel. Each clank only serving to remind Reid how little time he had left to prepare for this trial.
Eventually Dr. Mancini appeared and he invited Reid through to his office, an even smaller, darker room, full of books, papers and more foot art.
Although he and Reid had spoken on the phone a few times, Dr. Mancini wasn’t one for small talk. “Do you have the check?” Mancini immediately asked, after inviting Reid to have a seat on his padded examination table. “Of course”, Reid replied, fumbling through the stack of papers and medical records he had brought with him.
Medical experts don’t come cheap. And most of them need to be paid before they will ever offer an opinion on a case. From their prior conversations though, Reid was optimistic that Mancini was going to be able to help him. If Mancini didn’t think there was any negligence, Reid’s only hope would be to beg the judge for a postponement.
“So do you think we have a chance?” Reid asked hopefully. “Let’s have a look”, Mancini replied non-committedly.
Reid proceeded to walk Mancini through the medical files in detail. Sharon Burrell was a middle-aged African American nurse from Brooklyn, that had gone to see a well-known podiatrist by the name of Dr. Karl Thomas. Sharon had been suffering from a painful lump in her foot between her toes. Dr. Thomas diagnosed it as a Morton’s Neuroma, and scheduled Sharon for surgery to have it cut out. But a week after Dr. Thomas’ surgery, Sharon was complaining of even more pain. Dr. Thomas told her that it “must have grown back” and said that she would need another surgery. At that point Sharon decided to get a 2nd opinion and was told that yes she would need further surgery, but that now she had permanent nerve damage in her foot. Despite the second surgery, she continued to suffer pain between her toes.
Eventually Sharon found a lawyer to take her case, and about a month or two before trial, the file landed on Reid’s desk with instructions to find an expert, and find a way to win the case.
Now, sitting in Dr. Mancini’s office, Reid waited, patiently, for the doctor to form an opinion on whether his fellow podiatrist had been negligent. Mancini mumbled incoherently to himself as he read through the medical records Reid had brought with him. There wasn’t a lot of detail there, and part of the puzzle for Mancini seemed to be figuring out what Dr. Thomas had actually done.
Eventually Mancini took off his glasses and looked up from the records. “Well, if nothing else, his technique was poor”, he said. “Well, was it negligent?” Reid asked, “Do I have a case?” “Maybe”, replied Mancini. That was enough for Reid.
For the next three hours, the attorney and the doctor talked about feet and toes and lumps and incisions and neuromas and nerves and surgeries. The posters on the wall came in useful for Mancini to explain to Reid about pre-surgery decisions, operating procedures, and post-surgery treatment. As Reid listened, he tried to think about how to use this advanced information to present the strongest arguments against Dr. Thomas.
Mancini knew a lot about feet, but he didn’t know a lot about testifying at trial. Of course, neither did Reid, but he didn’t want to tell Mancini that.
It was almost 10:30pm by the time both men decided that enough was enough. Reid knew that he had a lot of work to do, not least that he had to learn everything there was to know about feet in the next two weeks.
The office was empty as Mancini walked Reid back through the darkened corridors to the elevator. “Oh by the way”, Mancini enquired, “Who is Dr. Thomas’ expert?” Reid thought for a moment and then said, “I think his name is Dr. Hugh Morris, do you know him?”. “Oh” said Mancini hesitating, “He’s awesome. He really is. He’s much smarter than me.” Reid shook his head, as he considered whether he should argue with Mancini on his opinion, but he didn’t.
The trial began on a rainy Monday morning in September. It had been just over two weeks since Reid met Mancini at his office. If he’d had nothing else to do in that intervening period, Reid knew that he could have prepared an imperious opening statement to the jury, he could have plotted a masterly take down of Dr. Thomas and his expert in cross-examination, and he could have worked closely with Dr. Mancini to become an expert in podiatry medicine himself.
But that’s not how the life of a personal injury lawyer in New York City works. There were another 115 cases that demanded Reid’s immediate attention. There were depositions to be taken, briefs to be written, and angry bosses to be answered to. For some reason, Reid had also picked the Labor Day weekend to move into a new apartment in Brooklyn. When the morning of jury selection arrived, Reid was not as prepared as he would have liked.
He was tired, he was stressed, and he was completely inexperienced. He’d been through one jury trial in Staten Island a few months earlier, that he’d won, but he hadn’t won enough money for it to be worthwhile. It had been made clear to him, by those angry bosses, in no uncertain terms, that unless he won this trial, and he won big, then he wouldn’t have a future with that law firm.
So he needed to win to keep his job. Reid was also supposed to be getting married the next month, something he had barely had time to think about. He knew that the wedding was going to cost a lot of money, and he knew that the rent for this new apartment wasn’t cheap.
So he needed to win for his family too. But more than anything, Reid felt pressure to win for his client. This case was Sharon’s life. She had continued to suffer pain for years after the surgery. She was unable to continue her job as a nurse, and she now walked with a cane. Her life had been changed. He needed to win for her.
On the first morning of jury selection, dozens of potential jurors were hoarded into the courtroom in downtown Brooklyn, for Reid and Dr. Thomas’ lawyer to question.
Dr. Thomas’ lawyer was Harry Croker. Croker was a thin, short, balding, older man with a pleasant manner, but a devious brain. He had been defending doctors for 30 years in New York, and he knew every dirty trick in the book. He had written the book. He had published the book. He had designed the cover. Croker could have published 10 volumes of ‘Harry Croker’s Dirty Book of Dirty Trial Tricks’, and he was ready to use every one of them against Reid.
Croker knew from the moment Reid introduced himself that first morning, that he was going to destroy the young lawyer. “Call me Pete”, said Reid offering his hand to Croker across the attorneys’ table. “Call me Mr. Croker”, responded Croker, refusing to acknowledge Reid’s presence.
It took two whole days to pick the jury. Croker fought Reid on everything. Several times he demanded that the Judge dismiss the entire jury pool because of something Reid had said. Croker objected to everything, and he made Reid look like the rookie lawyer he was in front of everyone.
The Judge knew Croker well too. Finally, once the jury had been selected, Croker and Reid met with the Judge in her chambers to discuss the trial schedule. Judge Rosenbaum was an elderly Jewish lady with orange hair. She had presided over medical malpractice trials for decades, and probably knew more about the practice of medicine than most of the doctors that came before her. She didn’t have a lot of patience for new lawyers though.
Croker walked into Judge Rosenbaum’s chambers and immediately wished the Judge a happy Jewish new year, in Hebrew. Croker knew that this would unsettle Reid even more, and it did. The Judge and Croker continued to talk and laugh in Hebrew like old friends. As if he didn’t know already, Reid began to appreciate that this was going to be one of the toughest weeks of his life.
Now if the trial had only been four or five difficult days, that would have been one thing. But in the end, the trial lasted nearly three weeks, and every day was a battle. On the day that Reid’s expert Dr. Mancini was due to testify, Croker had prepared a host of new motions and challenges for the Judge to hear. That was also the day that Reid’s law firm sent one of the angry bosses down to the courthouse to see how things were going. Things were not going well.
Dr. Mancini did a good job but he was no match for Croker. If anything Dr. Mancini was too honest. Croker chewed him up and spat him out. And then Croker stood up objected to every single question that Reid tried to ask. Every. Single. Question. And he did it in a way that made it appear to everyone that Reid didn’t know what he was doing. Arguably, Reid didn’t know what he was doing, and the Judge upheld most of Croker’s objections.
Reid would ask a question. “Objection”, “Sustained”. Another question. “Objection”, “Sustained”. Reid was on the verge of giving up. The Judge was getting frustrated. And the jury could see that Reid was causing the frustration. Eventually, after hours and hours of fighting and struggling, Reid got through it. But the report back to his law firm from the angry boss was not good.
That evening, back in his office, Reid was told to try and settle the case for something, anything. Enough to at least cover the expenses. But Reid refused. Something told him that he could still win. The angry bosses didn’t feel the same way though, and so they called up Croker themselves. Croker, typically, refused to offer a penny. He laughed at them, and hung up the phone, convinced that he was going to win.
On the last day of the trial, Reid got to cross examine Dr. Hugh Morris, the defense expert. This was Reid’s last chance to make Dr. Thomas look bad and somehow convince the jury that there had been malpractice. But Dr. Mancini was right, Morris was smart. And he knew how to testify before a jury. He had been well coached by Croker, he looked great, and he knew exactly what to say. When Reid asked him a question, Morris would turn and give his eloquent and poised answer directly to the jury. It was very effective.
After dozens of questions on the witness stand to Dr. Morris that hadn’t made a dent in his opinions, Reid remembered the first thing that Mancini had told him.
“Well Doctor, you must admit that Dr. Thomas’ technique was poor?”, Reid asked.
“Excuse me” replied Dr. Morris.
“His technique”, Reid continued, “You must admit that it was poor”.
“I’m sorry, it was what?” said Morris.
It’s important to remember at this juncture that Reid still has a thick Scottish accent. And in Scotland the word “poor” is pronounced as if it rhymes with “sewer”, a two syllable word with extra emphasis on the first syllable. However in America, the word “poor” is pronounced as if it rhymes with “door”. Although Reid had been living in the US for 5 years, he had not yet realized this difference in dialect. And there would be another 32 long seconds, in that tense Brooklyn courtroom, until the distinction became apparent to him.
“It was poor, Dr. Morris, peeeewwweeer. It was very peeeeewwwweeer.”
Reid stared at the eminent Manhattan podiatrist Dr. Morris as he stressed the “eww” sound. He glanced over at the bemused faces of the Brooklyn jury as he said “poor” again, repeatedly, louder and longer each time. He looked up at Judge Rosenbaum for help, but she didn’t understand Glaswegian either. He looked over at Croker at the attorney table, hoping for some sort of objection. But Croker sat there silently, motionless, for the first time in weeks.
Finally, the penny dropped.
“Oh, I mean pore Doctor, you must agree with me that his technique was pore”, said Reid, pleading with Dr. Morris to respond.
“No I don’t agree”, said Dr. Morris.
“I have nothing further”, sighed Reid, as he sat down.
With that, the Judge excused the witness and reminded the court that closing arguments would be heard the following morning at 9am.
That night, Reid went up to the rooftop of his new apartment to work on his summation. He knew that Croker had beaten him up, and the Judge was frustrated. He knew that his expert had been destroyed, and that the jury just wanted to go home. But he thought there was still a chance if he could get the jury to focus on his client.
The next day, when Reid stood up for his closing arguments, he started by asking the jury to forgive him for the mistakes he had made in the trial. He admitted that this was his first medical malpractice trial, and the Mr. Croker was a much better attorney. But he told the jury that the lawyers were the least important people in the courtroom.
Reid went back through all the evidence and the testimony, outlining the case against Dr. Thomas, then finally, Reid approached the jury box, leaned forward and put both hands on the rail that divided the jury from the rest of the courtroom. Looking in turn at each of the jurors, Reid concluded:
“Tonight, we will all leave this courtroom, and get on with our lives, myself included, Mr. Croker, the Judge, Dr. Thomas, all of you. But Sharon wont. She has to live with this forever. She has been waiting 4 years for this day, and whatever you decide this afternoon will affect the rest of her life. She is entitled to justice. And only you can give it to her”.
With that, the jury were sent out to consider the case.
Reid sat outside the courtroom with Sharon. Reid was exhausted. Sharon was in tears. She came up to Reid and hugged him, “Thank you for believing in me. Whatever happens, I know that you did your best.”
But Reid was too nervous to accept any compliments. He explained to Sharon that, generally speaking, if the jury comes back in 15 minutes or less, then she has lost. But the longer the jury take, the better it might be for her, because the jurors are probably discussing how much to award.
5 minutes passed, then 10 minutes, then 15. The jury was still talking. 30 minutes, an hour, then two hours. The more time passed, the more Reid could see Croker getting worried at the other end of the hallway. What if Croker wanted to talk about settlement now? Reid had already got the answer to that question from the angry bosses, specifically: “Tell him to go and fuck himself”. Apparently they didn’t like him either.
After almost four hours of waiting, the court officer advised the lawyers that the jury had reached a verdict. Immediately everyone funnels back into the courtroom to hear the decision. Reid and Sharon sit back at the now familiar table nearest to the jury box, as Croker sits alone at his table. Dr. Thomas has already gone home.
The attorneys stand as the jury are marched back into the courtroom one last time. Reid scans the faces trying to figure out what they have decided. The one juror that he felt was on his side, a Polish bus driver, was looking at his feet. That was not a good sign.
Judge Rosenbaum asks the foreman of the jury if they have made a decision. The foreman says that they have. He then reads from the piece of paper in front of him:
“In response to the first question: “Did Dr. Thomas commit medical malpractice? the jury answer ‘Yes’.”
There are more questions to be answered, but inside Reid’s head, the room is spinning. He has won. He has fucking won the case. Now how much are they going to award? It could be anything! Could it be six figures? It needed to be six figures. Please let it be six figures.
The foreman continues:
“The jury awards the following amount of damages:
For past pain and suffering, we award Sharon Burrell one hundred and fifty thousand dollars.
For future pain and suffering, we award Sharon Burrell three hundred thousand dollars.”
Reid looks over at the jury and they are all smiling at him. He has won. Sharon is crying. Reid is hugging Sharon. The Polish Bus Driver is punching the air. Croker is making some sort of motion for something or other at the Judge. Still refusing to accept defeat, he demands that all the jurors confirm their verdicts individually and they do. The Polish Bus Driver shouts “Yes” when it is his turn. Croker continues making some more objections and motions. The Judge overrules him and confirms the verdict. It is over. Reid has won and he has won big. $450,000.
There was one last thing to do – call the angry bosses with the result. After explaining everything to Sharon and ignoring Croker shout about an appeal, Reid goes outside the courtroom and sits down on the courthouse steps in downtown Brooklyn. He hadn’t spoken or communicated with his boss since the 15-minute mark in the jury’s deliberation.
It was one of the shortest, but most memorable phone conversations of Reid’s life.
“FUCKING YESSSSSS!!!!! WE FUCKING NEEDED THAT!!!!! HOW THE FUCK DID YOU DO THAT?”
“I want a raise”.