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The Med Mal Changemaker

Jim Bartimus relies on his memory, work ethic and med school training

Photo by Don Ipock

Published in 2023 Missouri & Kansas Super Lawyers magazine

By Nancy Henderson on November 9, 2023


In the early 1980s, a pregnant Kansas woman had been left lying on a gurney by health care workers in a Missouri hospital when her uterus ruptured, causing the death of her unborn child. Back then, in accordance with a unanimous “breath of life” Missouri Supreme Court decision, the woman had no legal recourse because the child hadn’t been born alive.

Despite the clamor of activists on both sides, Jim Bartimus—then a young attorney representing the woman—insists the case was more about the woman’s treatment than it was about the personhood of a fetus. He says filing a wrongful death lawsuit was simply the right thing to do.

In circuit court, the judge adhered to the state statute and dismissed Bartimus’ suit, but encouraged him to file an appeal with the Missouri Supreme Court—which agreed to hear the case. “I argued that, if she hadn’t crossed state lines, she’d have every right to bring a case, because Kansas recognized the death of a fetus and Missouri didn’t,” he says. “So, the mistake she made was crossing the state line, and this didn’t feel like judicial fairness. On a bigger picture, the child was at term, so was viable and could live outside the womb.”

Discussing strategy over lunch with his law school professor and mentor Jim Jeans, Bartimus opened his briefcase and spread out his legal pads, consulting his notes each time Jeans asked a question. Finally, Jeans looked his protégé square in the eye and said something that would stick with Bartimus for years to come: “Linus, leave your blanket at home. You know this case.”

Bartimus took the advice and won, flipping all seven judges in favor of his client. “It was the right time and the right facts. Good facts make good law, and this was an emotional case with very compelling facts,” he says. “That was [a case] I was really proud of, and something that broke new ground for the rights of unborn children, expanding the statutory law of wrongful death to now include viable fetuses.”

Now 74, Bartimus represents plaintiffs across the country in complex negligence and pharmaceutical cases as a medical malpractice attorney at Bartimus Frickleton Robertson Rader in Leawood, Kansas. Though he was twice chosen for litigation against the tobacco and railroad industries, he always circles back to what he loves most: medicine.

Rather than credit his persuasive courtroom demeanor, or the three years he spent studying medicine after becoming a lawyer, Bartimus chalks up his success to “a very good memory. And I really won’t be outworked,” he says. “The work ethic, plus memory, sometimes helps me offset people that are a lot smarter than me.”

“Jim is unmatched in spotting medical mistakes and figuring out how to work up a case so that complex medical issues are understandable to lay jurors and judges not steeped in medicine,” says Chip Robertson, a former Missouri Supreme Court judge who leads the firm’s appellate practice. “His knowledge of medicine is often equal to many physicians, so he is not intimidated by the doctor who attempts to jargonize a deposition.”

Perhaps most importantly, Robertson adds, Bartimus cares a great deal about the people he helps: “He has earned his gray hair by worrying about his clients’ cases and well-being. At the end of the day, all of that drive and energy is about the client whose tragedy brought him or her to our door.”

An Air Force brat from Belton, Missouri, Bartimus played competitive baseball until a knee injury sidelined him at age 42. Growing up, he wanted to be a pilot like his dad, but his 20/40 vision shifted his sights to the law instead. After serving two tours in the U.S. Navy as an air intercept controller in Vietnam and Japan from 1971 to 1974, Bartimus headed back home to study law at the University of Missouri-Kansas City School of Law.

At the close of his very first class, Bartimus walked up to Professor Jeans and boldly asked for a job. The early research experience it provided, along with a stint working for plaintiff lawyer Lantz Welch, steered Bartimus toward trial law. When he got his J.D. in 1977, Welch invited him to share space in Kansas City with three other attorneys, all working independently. “Basically, from the very start, it was ‘Eat what you kill,’” Bartimus says. “I was never on a salary. I’m not risk averse, so I was very happy to do that, and, in fact, tried two cases in my first month as a lawyer.”

His first trial, which he second-chaired, involved a 6-year-old boy who drowned in a city swimming pool while the lifeguards were on lunch break. During voir dire, Bartimus’ colleague made a couple of major mistakes, for which the judge cautioned him. The senior attorney then turned to Bartimus and asked, “You wanna try this?”

He was ready. Winning a verdict for the boy’s grandfather, he says, “really kicked it off for me that I wanted to help people.”

For a short period, Bartimus tried to mimic Welch’s flamboyant showmanship in court. “That worked well for him. It just doesn’t work well for me,” Bartimus says. “After you get a bunch of losses, you realize you don’t need to be full of yourself.”

In the late ’70s, medical malpractice cases were few and far between. But as they started trickling in, Bartimus realized he wanted to fully understand the science behind his own arguments. So, in 1978, he enrolled in the University of Missouri-Kansas City School of Medicine, auditing classes for almost three years. Although he didn’t earn full medical credentials—that was never his intent—Bartimus was welcomed as a fellow in the American College of Legal Medicine, which recognizes a short list of attorneys with dual degrees in law and medicine.

The classes paid off. Once, when representing the family of a little girl who went blind, he was studying her X-rays and noticed a tumor on her optic chiasm—the place in the brain where the nerve fibers from your eyes cross each other. “All the doctor had was a report, so he missed it,” says Bartimus. “I sat down with my radiologist and said, ‘Could this possibly be the cause of both optic nerves being affected?’ And he looked at the films … and the answer was, ‘Yes, that’s exactly what it is.’”

Bruce Keplinger, of Norris Keplinger Hicks & Welder, has thrice defended malpractice cases against Bartimus—including one on behalf of a cardiologist accused of negligence when a 38-year-old man died on the cardiac catheterization table. “I specifically remember Jim preparing a series of posters, each with three or four questions on them, and forcing my doctor to answer each of those questions while writing the answers on the posters,” Keplinger says. “This was highly effective, and Jim painted my doctor into a corner.”

Bartimus’ battles have, at times, led to legal and hospital policy changes. After health care workers at one hospital placed two drugs on the same tray—one meant for the stomach, one for the brain—and reversed the medications while administering them, a man with non-Hodgkin lymphoma died a slow and painful death. As part of the settlement Bartimus secured for the man’s pregnant widow, the drugs must now be given in two different locations at the hospital. In another case, Bartimus sued a doctor who, while reading a child’s X-ray, was distracted by a call on his cellphone and overlooked the image of her tumor. Thanks to Bartimus, the hospital now bans radiologists from carrying phones when reading scans.

An especially memorable case involved one of the first organ transplant lawsuits in the U.S. In the late ’80s, an Ozarks woman died of malignant melanoma three months after receiving a kidney from a California donor who had not been screened for a suspicious mole. At the time, the organ network and doctors were immune from lawsuits, so Bartimus brought the suit against hospital staff members, asserting they were also responsible. When the jury ruled for the defense, he informed them he’d appeal unless the national network changed its protocol. The organization thus began requiring that every mole on potential donors be checked.

Despite regularly clashing with medical establishments and personnel in his cases, Bartimus has occasionally defended physicians. “I think it gives me some credibility,” he says. “I remember talking to a couple of doctors one time, and the general opinion was, ‘We don’t like you, but we respect you.’ And you know what? I’ll take that.”

Consulting experts and reading voraciously—he subscribed to 20 medical journals at one point—has likewise taught Bartimus that “bad things can happen to good people through nobody’s fault. For every 100 cases we look at, I would say clearly 90% were … instances where either there was no medical negligence or where I couldn’t prove that there was.”

Bartimus has filed for punitive damages only three times. “Each time, it involved a physician who had been impaired and caused somebody harm,” he says. “It’s not just a doctor running the red light. We all run red lights in whatever profession we do; we all make mistakes. The thing about medicine is we take it very personally because it’s our health.” 

And he takes his cases personally, too; Bartimus considers medical malpractice attorneys to be “merchants of misery,” a phrase he quotes from Welch. “People don’t come to us telling us they had a very healthy baby. They come because there’s been tragedy in their life. And whether it’s somebody’s fault or not, I have to make that determination. Am I going to be able to provide some relief for this family or not?,” he says. “People come to me for answers, and that’s what I try to provide them. They deserve it.”

Despite Bartimus’ love of the courtroom, he has started thinking about retiring when the time is right. In the meantime, he is more appreciative than ever of the mentors, family and colleagues who helped him get to where he is today. “I’m kind of like the turtle,” he says. “If you drive down the road and you see a turtle sitting on top of the fencepost, you know he didn’t get there by himself. I’m here because of my law partners, my wife of 44 years, and the people that have supported me all through my journey. This is not a one-man show.”

On a Mission

In 1991, when a judge recessed a case Jim Bartimus was trying in Atlanta, he accompanied his local co-counsel in assembling sandwiches for a nearby mission. “I came back, and we started doing it [at my firm],” he says of Sandwich Tuesdays, which has grown from making 25 sandwiches each week for City Union Mission in Kansas City to about 300. “It’s great camaraderie for our office, us getting together, and we know it’s helping people—we know that they count on it. We’re like family, and this is something we do together.”

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