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When Good Lawyers Go Bad: A Lesson of Ethics


The hallmark of a quality attorney is his or her commitment to ethics. Attorneys should hold themselves to the highest standards of ethics and principles, and those who choose not to should face consequences.

Take a recent medical malpractice case in Philadelphia. Accepted almost as a “fact of life” in medical malpractice cases, it is very difficult for patients and their lawyers to find physicians to serve as expert witnesses. Many doctors, especially local doctors, refuse to testify against a fellow doctor accused of medical malpractice. When doctors will testify on behalf of a patient (or plaintiff), it is usually a doctor in another jurisdiction. This brings about its own set of difficulties in scheduling, communication, and travel costs.

However, there are some exceptions, and recently one of these exceptions led to some particularly egregious behavior on the part of one defense attorney.

In the Philadelphia medical malpractice case Sutch v. Roxborough Memorial Hospital, the plaintiff alleged that a doctor failed to obtain diagnostic testing that could have resulted in a more timely diagnosis of Rosalind Wilson’s fatal lung cancer. The lawyer for the plaintiff secured a local physician to testify as an expert on the plaintiff’s behalf.

Unbelievably, the lawyer for the defense sent a letter to the expert’s employer, the Hospital of the University of Pennsylvania, warning them that the hospital could open itself to liability due to the expert’s testimony.

Upon discovering this, the plaintiff’s lawyer filed a motion against the defense’s lawyer, seeking sanctions for “violations of ethical rules, improper conduct and obstruction of justice.” The Judge agreed and went ahead with sanctions against the defense lawyer, forbidding the lawyer to contact the expert or his employer again.

This sort of behavior by a lawyer is unethical, intimidating, and undermines the legal system itself. Always ensure you surround yourself with counsel you can trust to do the right and moral thing.

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