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Coffee Talk
Business Observer Friday, Mar. 12, 2004 14 years ago

Coffee Talk (Tampa edition)

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This week's items: Marian McCulloch, president of the Hillsborough County Bar Association, makes gutsy gay marriage commentaryFMA's fee amendment goes to courtPublic Defender Bob Dillinger's use of a poem insightful

Coffee Talk (Tampa edition)

Speaking out

Give Marian McCulloch her due. The president of the Hillsborough County Bar Association is not afraid to speak her mind. What's more the Allen Dell PA shareholder put it in writing.

Coffee Talk refers to the article published in the March edition of Lawyer, the Hillsborough County Bar Association magazine. The article - titled, " 'With Liberty and Justice for All,' Is It Only for Man, Woman & Child?" - tackles the divisive issue of gay marriage. In it she concludes: "As efforts are made over the course of the next few months to redefine marriage, consider this: Gays are not asking for special rights. They are asking for the same rights that other couples enjoy by law."

Feedback came swiftly, McCulloch says, noting that the publication hit her desk the day before Coffee Talk called. She expects even more responses as the magazine circulates to about 3,500 lawyers. "I've gotten positive feedback from most," she says. "I'll know better next week how the bar is reacting to it."

McCulloch acknowledges she thought a bit before she wrote it. "It was a little bit of a struggle for me, but not a tremendous struggle," she says. "I felt it needed to be addressed. I think it raises new legal issues that we'll see discussed and decided over the next few years.

"I also wanted to ask questions of members of the bar," she added. "That's what I tried to do in the article - make them think about what legal prohibitions there are to gay marriages vs. the social or religious or philosophical objections they might have."

FMA's fee amendment goes to court

A constitutional amendment clamping down on the contingency fees that Florida trial lawyers may receive from medical malpractice awards has reached the state's highest court.

Attorney General Charlie Crist asked the Florida Supreme Court March 8 for a routine review of the proposed measure, which the Florida Medical Association hopes to place before state voters on the November ballot.

The amendment would:

× Require claimants to get a minimum of 70% of the first $250,000 of all damages recovered via judgment, settlement or other means, excluding "reasonable and customary costs," regardless of the number of defendants;

× Mandate, without the need for implementing legislation, that claimants get 90% of all damages above $250,000, again excluding lawsuit costs.

The FMA's initiative petition is aimed squarely at the 40% contingency-fee arrangements that are commonplace between plaintiff's attorneys and their injured clients.

The Supreme Court justices check the validity of the petition. They also inspect the wording of the ballot question to be sure it deals with a single subject. Any proposed constitutional change must be spelled out in clear and unambiguous language, too.

The campaign to persuade more than 450,000 registered voters to sign the petition and then pass the amendment in the fall is in full swing.

Patients visiting the Diagnostic Clinic next to HCA - The Healthcare Co.'s Largo Medical Center in Pinellas County would have difficulty missing the promotional material scattered throughout the lobbies and examination rooms.

There are copies of a "Dear Patient" letter from H. Charles Campbell, president of Diagnostic Clinic Medical Group PA. "Did you know that much of the money awarded in medical liability cases goes to trial lawyers and not to patients?" Campbell asks. "Florida physicians, like myself, believe patients are being shortchanged."

Campbell says injured patients typically take home only $600,000 from a $1 million medical-malpractice award, under a 40% contingency agreement with legal counsel. "We feel that this is unfair," writes Campbell. "The patient or their family should receive their fair share of the award."

The medical lobby's concern for patients is touching. But doctors and hospitals just might be more concerned about discouraging malpractice litigation by reducing the financial incentive for the plaintiff's bar to file lawsuits.

If the amendment is approved, Campbell says injured patients would get $850,000, minus costs, out of the hypothetical $1 million award. Their lawyers would get $150,000, instead of a $400,000 cut. Campbell's letter is labeled a paid political advertisement from Citizens For A Fair Share Inc., a campaign committee established by the FMA to win passage of the constitutional amendment.

'We are the Hope'

The 6th Judicial Circuit's Public Defender Bob Dillinger is a nice guy who spends much of his life helping the downtrodden. And sometimes he and his assistants are all that stands between wrongly accused poor people and prison.

Dillinger's public defender Web site, called www.wearethehope.org, has the following poem:

We are the hope of the poor.

We are the hope of those who are falsely accused.

We are the hope of those addicted to alcohol and drugs who need treatment - not incarceration.

We are the hope of the mentally ill who need treatment when society wants to only "warehouse" them.

We are the hope, probably the only hope, of those whom our society wants to execute in the name of law and order.

Dillinger, who is up for re-election this year, appears to be running unopposed unlike those in the Pinellas sheriff's race which has attracted three candidates - James F. Coats, Timothy G. Glassburner and Larry Broga.

Political activist?

Sen. John Edwards, D-N.C., put a damper on the enthusiastic support of Tampa lawyer Steve Yerrid when he pulled the plug on his presidential bid days before his scheduled March 4 appearance at a Yerrid-sponsored fundraising event at Tampa's Centre Club.

Yerrid, who earned much attention for the legal work that brought him millions of dollars for representing the state of Florida against the tobacco industry, did not respond to a request for comment.

Politics isn't a new fascination for Yerrid, who personally contributed $2,000 last August to Edwards' campaign. Since 1999, Yerrid has contributed $33,750 to federal political action committees, $20,000 in joint fundraising contributions and $5,000 in soft money contributions.

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