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Attorney: Karen Gievers, 51 Firm: Tallahassee, Fla.’s Karen A. Gievers P.A. Case: Two Forgotten Children v. State of Florida, No. 95-19835, 96-05980 (Cir. Ct., Dade Co., Fla.) In developing a case in which damages may be limited, or that is pro bono, pretrial streamlining is essential, says plaintiffs’ attorney Karen Gievers. “You have to keep the costs down, starting with discovery.” In medical malpractice actions, she notes, she typically does not take depositions of the defendants’ scheduled experts, but relies on impeaching the witnesses at trial via published articles. At times, she says, taking experts’ depositions plays into the defendants’ hand. “Some defendants hire two or three experts on each point, to see which expert will hold up in depositions.” The defense then drops the weakest witnesses. Even with her own witnesses, she sometimes avoids in-person pretrial preparation. In a recent suit against the state of Florida over the treatment of two teenagers by the foster care system, she did not conduct pretrial interviews with the doctors and other medical personnel who had provided care to the children. Instead, she relied solely on information in the medical records to prepare her examinations of these workers. “This was consistent with our belief that you just lay the facts out and not try to direct the testimony of the witnesses.” This also enhanced the credibility of the plaintiffs’ presentation. With each of the first few medical witnesses, she recalls, “the defense counsel asked, ‘Have you spoken to Ms. Gievers about your testimony?’ Each time, the witness said no. After a while, she stopped asking.” This bare-bones method has served Gievers well in a career built on taking cases other law firms turn down. “Some attorneys have high damage thresholds before they talk to people,” she says. “I’ll take the case if I think I can make a difference.” Two of the biggest victories in her career have come in such cases. Her largest verdict, for example, came in an obstetrical malpractice action in which the plaintiffs were charging negligent mismanagement of a pregnancy. Other firms turned the case down because the cause was a difficult one to prove, she says. Gievers accepted the case and won a $12 million verdict. Her recent $4.4 million verdict against Florida’s foster care system was also referred by another firm. The other lawyers, she says, “had undertaken the case but determined it would be too costly.” PART OF A MISSION Gievers was the natural choice to take over the case. In addition to having an active civil practice, she has long been on the cutting edge of litigation on child protection issues. She was credited with saving Florida’s guardian ad litem program in the early 1990s and is the founder and president of the Children’s Advocacy Foundation Inc. She has been suing the Florida foster care system on behalf of children for more than a decade. In June she filed a suit against the state’s foster care program and is seeking to have it certified as a class action. Few children have had more harrowing experiences in the foster care system than the plaintiffs in the Miami trial. “Melinda” was 4, and “Karina” was 2 when their mother left them alone in a city park in Miami in 1986, and the girls were brought into the care of the state Department of Children and Families. Since 1986, Gievers says, both girls have been in more than 30 different foster homes. “Each has attended more than 20 schools,” she adds. Neither can read. In several of the homes, the girls were beaten or raped. By law, the agency was required to petition for termination of parental rights on the children’s 18-month anniversary in foster care, she says. “To this day, they haven’t filed the petitions.” Attorneys filed suit on the girls’ behalf against the Department of Children and Families, contending that the children had been harmed, and that the department should have attempted to find the girls permanent homes. Both girls, Gievers notes, are still in the Dade County foster care system; both now have babies of their own. Karina’s daughter was the result of a gang rape. “I began streamlining the case at the outset,” says Gievers. “I determined that the case would consist of the department’s own records.” She filed to get the department’s records in 1995, then filed the damage claim in March 1996. She also acquired the medical records, including hospitalizations and visits to doctors. The girls had bounced around so much that there were multitudinous medical records from a great number of doctors, she says. “They never took them to the same person twice.” From the records, she says, the plaintiffs developed several “heartstring issues”: the agency kept separating the girls; it did not find the girls permanent homes; and the caseworkers and supervisors ignored what was happening to the girls in the foster homes. BUILDING THEMES In her opening statement, Gievers established a few simple themes: “that children have a right to families and to grow up free of abuse; that the state has an obligation to put a child who’s neglected or abused in a better place;” and that the state had to be held accountable for its failures to foster children. During the plaintiffs’ case, she called nearly all the caseworkers and supervisors. “We called everyone from the state that we could get,” she notes. There was a risk of overwhelming the jury or overtrying the case, but Gievers says it was necessary. “We were trying to get the jurors to feel and absorb how many people were involved in these girls’ lives and just didn’t care.” The testimony of many of these witnesses was similar, she says. They would claim they didn’t remember, and they all denied knowledge of misconduct or abuse, “even though the older girl was diagnosed with syphilis at age 9.” She also called on agency officials “to measure the conduct against the standards.” She used these witnesses to bring in the case files. She could have had the case files entered into evidence, but “it would have meant a lot of reading [for the jury],” she says, and would have been considerably less engaging. “We tried generally, wherever possible, to do this chronologically; then we would intersperse these witnesses with an outside medical person.” Thus, after caseworkers denied knowledge of abuse, she says, the medical care people “would testify about specific harm at specific times.” She did not bring the girls into court except for their own appearance on the stand. “The guardian didn’t think it would benefit them to hear this testimony. They had already lived through the trauma.” The older girl testified first. She was 18 at the time. “We didn’t take her back through each incident of abuse, however,” Gievers says — there was no need. “The jury already knew. But we wanted the jury to know how it felt to go from age 4 to age 18 in foster care.” What was most poignant to Gievers was the girls’ assessment of their own futures. Both testified that they wanted to help people: the older sister as a nurse or counselor, the younger one as a caseworker or a lawyer. In stark contrast, Gievers followed the girls’ testimony with that of a neuropsychologist who had recently evaluated the girls. This witness testified that the girls’ IQs and ability to learn had diminished as a result of drugs, misdiagnoses, educational deficits, and foster-care-created attachment disorders. The best-case scenario for the girls was in some minimum-wage job and a lifetime of help in managing their lives. On Oct. 22, 1999, a Miami jury awarded Melinda $2.08 million and Karina $2.35 million. The department’s post-trial motions to set aside the verdict were denied. The state is appealing. Tips: � Impeach the experts with their own words. � Streamline discovery in order to limit expenses. � Use witnesses to introduce the case files.

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