If It Can Be Tried In Front of a Jury, Mark Tanner Can Do It
At 39, medical malpractice attorney Mark Tanner became one of the youngest fellows in the International Academy of Trial Lawyers. He was just getting started
Published in 2010 Pennsylvania Super Lawyers magazine
By Caroline Tiger on May 20, 2010
“Spinal surgery is complex but this case is simple,” Mark Tanner tells the jury at the opening of a medical malpractice case one Monday in late January. “Four years ago, Earl Williams lay face down on an operating table.” Tanner waves toward his client, a stout 53-year-old man whose ramrod-straight stiffness demonstrates his physical discomfort after the flubbed procedure. Tanner’s tone remains straightforward. “The doctor learned of his devastating mistake,” he says, “and didn’t tell anybody.” Simply put, Tanner tells the jury, this case is about character, integrity and truth-telling.
This trial, one of the latest in Tanner’s remarkable career—at 39 he was one of the youngest lawyers ever invited to become a fellow of the International Academy of Trial Attorneys in 2006—reminds him why he went to plaintiff’s work after graduating from Temple University’s school of law. “If you break something that’s someone else’s, it’s your obligation to fix it, plain and simple,” he says. “It’s just a sense of trying to level the playing field, trying to make things fair again. This is the stuff we try and teach our kids.”
In 2005, he represented a doctor in a claim against an insurance company. “It included the same principles that guide any trial: Who’s right? Who’s wrong? Who’s telling the truth, and who’s not?” he says.
The doctor was on the line for $2.5 million after his insurer wouldn’t cover damages sought by a patient whose skin cancer wasn’t diagnosed. The physician assigned his rights to the patient to pursue a bad faith claim against the insurer and Tanner served as lead lawyer at trial.
“It was just complete disregard for the principles that are behind insurance,” he says. “You know, you pay money, you pay a premium, put yourself in our hands. All those concepts of trust that you hear about in commercials were thrown out the window.”
The federal jury ended up returning an award of $7.9 million, which included $6.25 million in punitive damages. It was the largest bad faith insurance jury verdict ever in Pennsylvania.
The bad faith case reveals another reason why plaintiff’s work appeals to Tanner: new challenges. That’s what convinced the Holy Cross English major to move from literature—his passion was the Victorian era, particularly Dickens—to law. He enrolled at Temple and considered a career as a prosecutor. A program offered by the Philadelphia district attorney’s office for second-year law students allowed him to sample that line of work. While he found aspects of the process, such as questioning witnesses and crafting arguments, thrilling, the uniformity of the work, mostly drug possession cases, frustrated him. “I wasn’t really making anyone’s life better,” he says. “There were deeper socioeconomic issues that individual cases aren’t going to resolve.”
So he moved over to Thompson & Associates and worked for Sally Thompson, a trial attorney who specialized in medical malpractice. It was a good fit.
“You see people whose lives have been devastated, turned upside down for reasons they don’t understand, that no one’s explained to them,” he says, leaning forward, his face reddening. “And when you start looking into it, you realize it never should have happened. The decision becomes: Do you do nothing and have that person and their family become dependent on the state, or do you try and hold the wrongdoer accountable?”
Tanner worked with Thompson until 1993 and then went to Ominsky, Welsh & Steinberg. In 1998, Alan Feldman recruited him to Feldman Shepherd. Feldman knew of him because he and Tanner both handled pieces of the massive orthopedic bone screw litigation. While at Ominsky, Tanner managed discovery on behalf of plaintiffs at the state and federal levels and argued certain legal issues in front of combined hearings. “The more I ran into Mark in court the more impressed I was,” Feldman remembers. “He had a poise and a maturity that was remarkable. He’s extremely well-spoken, thoughtful, insightful. He was persuasive without being overbearing.” Feldman went back to the firm and told his partners, “I’ve just been with the most talented young lawyer I’ve ever known.”
Today, Tanner is in high demand. He gets 20 to 30 calls a week, and can only accept a small percentage. “He has such a wide range of interests,” says Feldman. “It’s a matter of, can it be tried in front of a jury? If so, he can do it.”
He’s also deft at detail-oriented, behind-the-scenes work, evidenced by his pro bono commitment to the Support Center for Child Advocates. In one case, he walked four siblings through the process of being removed from their home, placed in foster care, and now, hopefully, adoption.
“These are hard cases because the level of complexity can be overwhelming—you need someone who’s on top of every detail,” says Frank Cervone, the center’s executive director. “Mark’s
dedication extends to a tremendous amount of out-of-court advocacy.”
Tanner decompresses from all this work by regularly taking diving trips with his family, to places like Honduras, the Cayman Islands and the Florida Keys. (He helped his daughter get diving certification when she was 11 and his father when he was 67.) Look on his office windowsill and you’ll find photos of them having fun in these faraway places. You’ll also find photos of families from less happy times. His clients. He has one from the kids of a mother who died from cancer after her health clinic failed to diagnose a growing tumor in her foot. Tanner keeps these photos together for a reason.
“When something like this happens,” he says, pointing to the photo of the children, “you know all the work is worth it. My kids know it’s worth it. They’re rooting for me and proud when [a case] is over.”
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