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October 30, 2023

Gfeller Laurie launches healthcare practice to fill medical malpractice defense void

HBJ PHOTO | STEVE LASCHEVER Gfeller Laurie Managing Partner Melicent Thompson (left) with the law firm’s recent hires, associate Gabriella L. Izzo and healthcare practice co-chairs Edward W. Mayer Jr. and M. Karen Noble.

Civil defense law firm Gfeller Laurie has launched a new healthcare and professional liability practice in its West Hartford office, adding two new partners and an associate.

The practice will exclusively handle the defense side of medical claims, such as representing providers in medical malpractice lawsuits and counseling healthcare professionals on risk management.

The expansion will help the 14-year-old firm fill an industry need. Connecticut is known nationally for its large payments in favor of plaintiffs in medical malpractice suits, as the state does not have a cap on damages.

Melicent Thompson, managing partner of Gfeller Laurie, said the expansion is part of a growth strategy to establish specialty practices throughout the firm’s Northeast footprint.

“We are not looking to grow for growth’s sake,” Thompson said. “We’ve seen that not work for other firms.”

Over the last 12 months, the firm has grown by more than a third, adding 10 new attorneys.

Gfeller Laurie has six offices in addition to its main one in West Hartford, with locations in Massachusetts, New Jersey, New York and Pennsylvania. The firm has 24 total attorneys.

Co-chairs of the new practice, Edward W. Mayer Jr. and M. Karen Noble, both come from healthcare-provider families, which makes medical defense litigation a natural fit for them.

“We’re very dedicated to the defense of the profession,” Mayer said. “Health care itself has changed, and it’s been hard for providers — litigation is hard for them — so we kind of take a holistic approach with the client and are mindful of the struggles that they go through.”

A key question in medical malpractice cases is often whether complications from surgery were the result of a doctor’s negligence, or an unintended consequence of a procedure, Noble said.

“The claims often involve failure to diagnose, or they’re concerning the technical aspects of a procedure, how a procedure was done, whether or not a particular course of treatment was indicated,” Noble said. “And should you have done this surgery, or not, should you have done something differently.”

A delay in diagnosis of certain medical conditions, such as cancers, can also lead to malpractice lawsuits, Noble said.

Tort reform vs. patient safety

Connecticut laws tend to favor plaintiffs in medical malpractice cases, said Dr. Gregory Shangold, past president of the Connecticut State Medical Society, which represents healthcare providers.

Of particular concern, Shangold said, is an increasing number of malpractice claims that result in seven-figure payouts, which contribute to rising healthcare and insurance costs.

Between 2018 and 2022, there were 342 medical malpractice claims that resulted in indemnity payments of more than $1 million, according to the Connecticut Insurance Department.

“Even if there’s a small chance you’re going to lose, you’ll end up not fighting the case,” Shangold said. “It promotes a system that we have that is very dysfunctional.”

While large payouts create an incentive for plaintiffs to file medical malpractice claims, they expose defendants to greater risk when a lawsuit goes to trial. Many defendants opt to settle to avoid the potential for a large jury verdict, he said.

The average payout for a medical malpractice claim in Connecticut, including those that went to trial, was $918,666 between 2018 and 2022, according to the Connecticut Insurance Department.

Between 2017 and 2021, the average settlement for a medical malpractice case in Connecticut was $664,440 — the fourth highest in the United States after Maine, Illinois and Massachusetts, according to data from medical research firm Justpoint.

The Connecticut State Medical Society for years has been lobbying for updates to the state’s medical malpractice laws, including a damages cap.

“There’s a large body of evidence that shows some sort of cap on non-economic damages will lower settlements and all the costs associated with health care,” Shangold said. “And 24 states actually have a cap on non-economic damages, and six states have a cap on total damages.”

At a time when the need for providers is severe, he said malpractice lawsuits not only increase costs, but can deter people from pursuing medical careers.

Strong incentives for plaintiffs attorneys in medical malpractice cases also contribute to the need for defense attorneys.

“There’s a big inequity between the plaintiffs’ attorneys, and how much money they’re making, and the defense attorneys,” Shangold said. “So, we don’t have a lot of attorneys in the defense field to be fighting all of these cases.”

But there’s a balance between tort reform and providing an avenue for negligence victims to seek compensation.

“Medical malpractice claims are important to protect the safety of the healthcare system,” said Peter C. Bowman, founder of BBB Attorneys, a personal injury and criminal defense law firm in West Hartford. “These claims have historically identified medical mistakes that can be prevented in the future, while compensating victims.”

According to a 2018 Johns Hopkins study, more than 250,000 people die every year from medical errors — the third-leading cause of death in the U.S., after cancer and cardiovascular disease.

Connecticut’s lack of a damages cap makes the healthcare system safer, Bowman said. He also believes damages caps are unconstitutional and “prevent holding medical providers fully accountable when they make a careless or reckless decision.”

In order for medical malpractice cases to proceed in Connecticut, state law requires an independent medical doctor to review a claim to confirm that a careless mistake was made, or the doctor’s conduct was outside the typical standard of care.

“This protects medical providers from frivolous claims,” Bowman said.

Filling a need

Connecticut has seen a wave of recent retirements of attorneys who handle healthcare and professional liability defense cases, said Thompson, the Gfeller Laurie managing partner.

Mayer and Noble bring decades of experience to the firm. They joined Gfeller Laurie as partners this summer, after working together for 18 years at DanaherLagnese, a civil litigator with offices in West Hartford and Westport.

They’ve also hired an associate, Gabriella L. Izzo, to round out Gfeller Laurie’s healthcare team. She focuses on complex medical issues with high-damage exposure.

Gfeller Laurie’s healthcare practice group: associate Gabriella L. Izzo and co-chairs Edward W. Mayer Jr. and M. Karen Noble.

Gfeller Laurie is focused on hiring new talent and training the next-generation of attorneys, Thompson said.

Noble is a past president of the Connecticut Defense Lawyers Association and holds a bachelor’s degree and law degree from Boston College.

Mayer, treasurer of the board of directors of the Connecticut Defense Lawyers Association, holds a law degree from Quinnipiac University and a bachelor’s degree from Northern Illinois University.

Izzo graduated from the Quinnipiac University School of Law and also received a bachelor’s degree in legal studies from Quinnipiac.

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