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Los Angeles-The University of California at Irvine’s Medical Center (UCI) has hired one of the nation’s largest medical malpractice law firms to defend its liver transplant program against recent allegations of extreme negligence. Los Angeles-based Bonne Bridges Mueller O’Keefe & Nichols is defending the Orange County, Calif., hospital from a growing number of lawsuits filed by the families of patients who died while waiting for healthy livers at UCI. Other suits claim patients had to wait years for healthy livers because UCI did not have enough surgeons. UCI shut down its 13-year-old liver transplant program on Nov. 10 after the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services withdrew funding. Federal regulators criticized UCI for not having a full-time liver transplant surgeon while 30 people died waiting for transplants. More than two dozen lawsuits have been filed in recent months against UCI, which has quickly assembled a legal defense team led by Margaret Holm, a partner at Bonne Bridges’ Santa Ana, Calif., office. She did not return calls seeking comment. Lawrence Eisenberg, the lead plaintiff’s lawyer in the liver transplant cases, said he expects more than 50 lawsuits could be filed with a settlement cost of up to $20 million. That amount resembles an earlier scandal in which UCI ended up paying $15 million in 1998 to settle suits alleging its doctors were stealing more than 30 women’s eggs and embryos. “Ultimately, this is going to be on par with the fertility litigation scandal against UCI,” said Eisenberg, a partner at Eisenberg & Gray in Irvine. Eisenberg and Mark Quigley, a partner at Greene Broillet & Wheeler, a Los Angeles-based plaintiff’s firm representing liver transplant patients, said they expect more suits in the coming weeks. At the defense helm Since the first lawsuit was filed, in-house lawyers at the UC system’s Oakland office have begun to organize a legal defense team. At the helm are Richard Wilson and Jeffrey Blair, who did not return calls seeking comment. In an e-mail to The National Law Journal, Susan Mancia, senior public relations officer at the UCI Medical Center, said that the university has hired Bonne Bridges as outside counsel. Holm, the firm’s managing shareholder for the past year, represented UCI in a case filed by Elodie Irvine, a patient whose complaints sparked government scrutiny of its liver transplant program. Irvine, who agreed to settle for $50,000, filed a malpractice lawsuit earlier this month against Eisenberg, her lawyer in the transplant case. She alleges that he forced her to settle without looking into more widespread problems at the hospital. Her lawyer in the professional malpractice suit, Frank O’Kane, of the O’Kane Law Firm in Encino, Calif., did not return calls. “Based upon the information available at that time, before trial, the plaintiff agreed to accept the $50,000 settlement offer on the recommendation of a neutral mediator,” Eisenberg said. “The complaint filed by Ms. Irvine and her attorney against me is a transparent attempt to discredit me.” Like the fertility scandal, the liver transplant cases fall outside the scope of traditional medical malpractice claims, alleging negligence and misrepresentation on the part of UCI officials. Unlike the fertility matter, the blame may not rest entirely with the doctors. In the fertility scandal, federal prosecutors indicted three UCI doctors; two fled the country. “The university had taken an adverse position against the physicians, and consequently there wasn’t the cooperation between the physicians and the university as to a legal defense,” said Patrick Moore, an Irvine defense attorney who represented one of the doctors in the fertility scandal. “I don’t know that there is an allegation in the liver transplant cases that physicians were doing things improperly or inappropriately, as there was in the fertility cases.”

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