Gerry Leeseberg knows when to go on the attack and when to rein it in
Published in 2022 Ohio Super Lawyers magazine
By Harris Meyer on December 30, 2021
At a 2018 trial in Franklin County, Gerry Leeseberg needed a way to make the jury connect with his client, Bradley Metts, a boy who became paralyzed at age 9.
Leeseberg was arguing that the boy’s “locked-in” syndrome was due to an alleged cascade of medical errors.
A defense expert had claimed in deposition that Metts was brain-dead, which, if true, could have weakened the claim for non-economic damages. Leeseberg’s challenge: to show the jury that this was a bright, personable young man.
So the Columbus attorney opened the trial with Metts introducing himself to the jury by putting words together on an electronic letterbox using his eyes—the only part of his body with which he could communicate.
“That was a stroke of genius,” says the judge in the case, Charles Schneider, now section chief for criminal justice at the Ohio Attorney General’s Office. “It was an excellent move. Gerry wanted the jury to see the condition of his client, but he respected his client and didn’t want to embarrass him. A lesser attorney would have had the boy sit in front of the jury for the entire trial.”
He won a $44.5 million verdict for Metts and his parents, including $20 million in non-economic damages, believed to be the largest individual personal injury verdict ever in Ohio. The judgment was against the lab firm; settlements had already been reached with the physician’s office and the hospital.
Leeseberg has spent nearly 40 years fighting for clients and families in the wake of injuries and deaths due to mistakes by health care professionals.
“Every one of these cases is a frickin’ movie,” says Leeseberg, who doesn’t always use euphemisms when describing what he sees as bad-faith behavior by physicians, hospitals and their hired medical experts. “The law in my business is pretty static, but every medical case is different. It’s a fascinating learning experience.”
And often heartbreaking. There was the $2 million verdict in 2010 for the parents of twin 3-year-old boys who died after outpatient tonsillectomies and adenoidectomies. The suit alleged that they should have been admitted to the hospital for the procedures and post-op monitoring. Leeseberg says it was the most emotionally difficult case he’s ever handled, made harder because his own son was about the same age as the twins. “I struggled during the whole trial to keep myself from crying,” he says. “I can’t imagine anything more devastating than losing a child, let alone losing two kids.”
He’s currently representing 17 families whose loved ones died from 2014 to 2018 after being administered fatal overdoses of fentanyl and other painkillers ordered by Dr. William Husel in the intensive care units at two Mount Carmel Health System hospitals. The health system is owned by Trinity Health, a large national Catholic hospital chain. Husel is scheduled for trial in February on 25 counts of murder.
Leeseberg’s clients are suing the hospital system and Husel, alleging wrongful death. The hospital system says it had no knowledge of Husel’s actions until it fired him in late 2018. Leeseberg contends in court filings that the hospital knew, or should have known, that Husel was incompetent.
He hired a polling firm, which found that most Columbus-area residents thought a medical provider should have to pay large damages even when a patient was near death—as most of Husel’s patients were—before being administered a fatal overdose. He has used those survey findings to settle nine of the 17 cases so far.
Leeseberg has long helped lead the battle to fend off efforts by Ohio physicians, hospitals and insurers to make it harder for injured patients to seek legal recourse. For many years he advocated for the state trial lawyers’ group (now the Ohio Association for Justice) against the Ohio State Medical Association’s pushes for legislation restricting patient lawsuits.
He laments that, along with the wins, he has lost many rounds in Ohio’s traditionally Republican-dominated Statehouse and Supreme Court, including on the issues of non-economic damage caps and the one-year statute of limitations on medical malpractice claims. In his view, these tough limits have reduced the incentive for health care providers to improve patient safety conditions.
Still, his cases have established legal precedents expanding the rights of Ohio plaintiffs. One broadened the definition of the next of kin who qualify for compensation to include grandparents. Another case established that damages cannot be reduced based on a plaintiff’s previous health behaviors, like smoking, because they had nothing to do with the medical negligence.
On the subject of physicians who testify as defense experts, he says, “Many times the defense’s medical expert will say, ‘I wouldn’t have done it that way, but physicians do things differently,’” Leeseberg says. “The first thing I ask is, ‘Tell me why you don’t do it that way.’ Once you force him to explain, he’s basically making my case.”
Still, Leeseberg prides himself on having a good reputation in the medical community. He says he regularly receives case referrals from physicians he’s sued and defense attorneys he’s opposed, and has even become friends with some defendant doctors after their cases were resolved. He has also represented physicians in about a dozen cases over the years.
“Gerry’s at the top of the list of attorneys that defense lawyers would refer cases to,” says Patrick Smith, a veteran defense attorney at Poling Law in Columbus who was on the opposing side in the Metts settlement. “That’s how the entire bar feels about him.”
Smith says Leeseberg knows when to be rough in the courtroom, and when to be gentle. He recalls defending a surgeon who had failed his certification board exam several times. Representing the plaintiff, Leeseberg politely asked the surgeon about each of his efforts to pass the exam. “The surgeon ended up shooting himself in the foot by saying, ‘Yes, I failed; yes, I failed; yes, I failed,’” Smith says. “That was a talented way for Gerry to present the case, as opposed to coming across as a bully.”
Leeseberg, who’s 67, hopes to wrap up the Husel cases by the end of this year and turn his full attention to preparing his two younger partners to take over his firm so he can retire, possibly this year. He wants to take art and piano lessons, read books he’s never read, play more golf, learn a foreign language, and travel the world with his wife, Cindy. As a cancer survivor, he’s looking forward to this next phase of his life.
“I have no intention of dying at my desk like some lawyers have a need to do,” he says.
Case in Point
Gerry Leeseberg’s passion for golf proved professionally valuable in one dramatic case. In November 2009, a young member of his golf club went to the ER with abdominal pain and received a CT scan. The radiologist said it showed no blood clots, so Todd Pontius was sent home. The next day, he died of a pulmonary embolism.
After his death, the radiologist’s practice partner, who belonged to the golf club, looked at the scan. He told the golf club pro that the defendant “blew it” by missing the clot, according to depositions from the golf pro and the Pontius family physician, also a club member, who said he heard the conversation. Leeseberg says the golf pro told Pontius’ widow about the conversation—and suggested she speak with Leeseberg.
Leeseberg filed a malpractice suit against the hospital and radiology group and went to trial in 2015. When he attempted to call the golf pro to testify about his conversation with the second radiologist (who denied during deposition that he had said there was a blood clot), the defense objected. The judge ruled that testimony from the golf pro would be inadmissible.
After losing the trial, Leeseberg appealed the judge’s ruling. In 2016, the appellate court ordered a new trial. Then the hospital and radiology group quickly agreed to pay a confidential settlement.
Leeseberg says he’s had no social problems with anyone at the club—including member doctors—in the aftermath of that case.
“Everyone loved Todd,” he says.
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