Arguing the Medicine

Heather Ellison handles med-mal defense delicately  

Published in 2008 Virginia Super Lawyers Magazine — July 2008

"Right out of law school she went to trial with me," Rich Nagle says. "And we got one of the top 10 defense verdicts [for the year in Virginia]."

She, in this case, is Heather Ellison, a litigator with medical malpractice firm Hancock, Daniel, Johnson & Nagle. Together, Ellison and Nagle have notched a series of impressive victories. In 2005, they defended the largest defense verdict in Virginia (a demand of $25 million) as well as the fourth-largest (a demand of $2.15 million).

For the latter, Ellison, 30, prepared the case for trial and gave the opening statement. The former, says Nagle, "was the case of a 4-month-old child who came into the emergency department with a very rapid heart rate and ended up with severe brain damage. Heather was responsible for cross-examining the family members, which, as you can imagine, was pretty critical to make sure they were handled delicately."

"You just have to be sensitive," says Ellison. "We're lawyers, but we're humans first. ... It's tragic that this girl is going to have such a difficult life and that she struggles on a daily basis. That is not lost on us. But at the same time, there are times in medicine when there is injury, but it is not at the fault of the physician or the hospital."

Medicine has long been a part of Ellison's life. When she was 10 she would ride along with her mother, a registered nurse in Fairfax, on house calls.

Ellison's love of the law began even earlier. At age 7, Ellison would arrange her dolls into a mock jury and argue cases to them. "I had these dreams of being a lawyer," she says. "I didn't know how we'd be able to make that possible with my mother being a single parent. But she was adamant."

When Ellison was in her second year of law school, her mother suggested she look into working with a hospital. One of the hospital risk managers suggested she get in touch with Nagle.

Interviewing for a summer internship, Nagle remembers, Ellison was "poised, confident and very comfortable in her own skin. Those things are important perhaps in any endeavor, but [especially] when you're hoping to be a top litigator."

Over the summer, Ellison's sharp intellect and work ethic impressed Nagle, and a year later she came to work at the firm. "Her preparation is unparalleled," says Nagle. "She has all of the i's dotted and the t's crossed before she walks into the courtroom. On top of that she has a charisma that causes juries to like her, judges to like her, and she has the ability to disarm witnesses because of that."

More recently, she and Nagle successfully defended a $2 million lawsuit against an obstetrician involving a baby with severe shoulder dystocia. They argued that the injuries occurred due to maternal expulsive forces—basically a combination of pushing and contractions.

"You handle it as delicately as you can," Ellison says of her work. "And you just argue the medicine."

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