Pitt mock trial pits those studying law against those studying medicine

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Two opposing counsels went head to head in a medical malpractice suit last week at the University of Pittsburgh School of Law.

Practicing doctors dressed in lab coats were called in as expert witnesses. The plaintiff and the radiologist she accused of negligence took the stand. Models of breasts were used to depict lump detection. Objections were made, and the credibility of the experts was questioned.

It almost felt real.

The mock trial was part of a Pitt trial theory and practice class that provides law students with their first opportunity to examine an expert witness. It also invites Pitt medical residents a take the witness stand to prepare for a day in court that most would hope to avoid.

"It has given the young doctors a chance to sit in the hot seat under cross examination, which is something they will most likely endure at some point in their life," said Andrew Eller, a retina surgeon at UPMC Eye Center and a professor of ophthalmology.

"At the same time, the law students get to match wits with a real doctor, rather than another law student reading from a script."

The use of residents from the same university system as the law students in a mock trial is rare and it's a first for the Pitt course.

"We're fortunate at Pitt because we have the medical center and the law school," said David Rosenberg, a partner at Weber, Gallagher, Simpson, Stapleton, Fires & Newby, and an adjunct professor at Pitt who helps lead the class. "I know Dr. Eller pretty well and we have a good relationship, and he understands the value to the residents in being able to testify."

Mr. Rosenberg, who specializes in insurance litigation, helped out with the International Association of Defense Counsel Trial Academy a few years ago, which puts on a boot camp for young lawyers in conjunction with Stanford University and uses doctors from the medical center to come in as expert witnesses.

He and Dr. Eller, who works with ophthalmology residents, cycle together, and during a recent ride Mr. Rosenberg asked if the residents might be interested in doing something similar for his students.

Erica Converse, a 23-year-old second-year law student who represented the "defendant" in the suit, said it's more difficult to persuade a resident than it is a law student reading from a script.

"To have an actual doctor who knows what they are talking about, who you can't bully into saying what you want them to say, who knows more than you -- that's a valuable experience to have early on so you know what you're getting yourself into," Ms. Converse said.

For the first time, she's learning the disadvantages of a cross-examination.

"It shows you how things can go awry in a trial if you aren't prepared for it," she said.

To make sure that didn't happen, Ms. Converse met with her expert witness before the trial to understand the science behind the case. She said the mock trial is opening her up to the reality of what her day-to-day life will be like as an attorney.

"It's a level of practical experience that I wouldn't have gotten otherwise," she said.

Likewise, the residents volunteer to take the stand to prepare themselves for a situation that could be critical to their careers. But unlike the lawyers, they don't learn about it in school.

"You try to practice medicine in a way that will keep you out of the courtroom, but the reality is, in one way or another, or on one side or the other, you're going to have to take the stand," said third-year ophthalmology resident Matthew Kaufman.

Dr. Kaufman, 33, who works at the UPMC Eye Center, said he isn't a radiologist, but medical school taught him enough about the field in general to be able to speak with authority on the stand.

He said the trials are helping him learn to explain technical information in a way that others can understand.

"It's a good test of thinking on your feet, being careful about what you say and knowing that every word that comes out of your mouth is going to be scrutinized," he said. "It's a challenge to really get the message you want to send out correctly without opening yourself up to misinterpretation."

Anya Gushchin, a 29-year-old third-year ophthalmology resident, took the stand as "Dr. Davis," the radiologist accused of negligence. She admitted that testifying was scary and made her nervous.

"These guys are good," she said. "They kind of keep you on your toes. I started blushing after a while. Your palms get sweaty."

When pressured in a cross-examination by the plaintiff's attorney, Dr. Gushchin's research played to her favor. The medical resident had consulted with radiologists at UPMC to make sure she knew what she was talking about.

Joshua P. Geist, a lawyer with Goodrich & Goodrich who specializes in malpractice cases, offered his time to act as the judge, but his primary role was to critique the law students.

He said they were at a much higher level than students he has encountered who aren't on competitive teams.

Six students from the law school's competitive mock trial team last year automatically qualified for the theory class, and more than 60 students tried out for the other 10 spots.

Most of the students will compete intercollegiately in mock trials this year.

Mr. Geist said the testimony of the medical residents was so convincing that he had no idea they weren't radiologists.

In his own law studies, he said he never had a chance to examine a medical resident until he stepped into an actual courtroom.

"It's much more realistic to what a real case is about," he said of the residents. "It never occurred to me in law school to use the residents who are right there."

First-year ophthalmology resident John Legarreta said that before the trial his only references to medical testimonies were from television. He thinks medical schools need to dedicate at least a day to teaching students about testifying.

On a lighter note, he was amused by the commonalities he discovered between the professions.

"I learned that they badger doctors as much as we badger lawyers," he said.

Taryn Luna: 412-263-1985 or tluna@post-gazette.com First Published December 5, 2011 5:00 AM


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