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A lawsuit over a dog bite has sparked a feud between two powerful Fort Lauderdale law firms and prompted an appellate judge to suggest that he will ask the Florida Bar to investigate the conduct of one of the insurance defense lawyers in the case. Judge George Shahood of the 4th District Court of Appeal angrily questioned the tactics of Fort Lauderdale lawyer Reid Cocalis during oral arguments in the case April 30. Cocalis’ opposing counsel, Jon Krupnick, accused Cocalis of secretly turning one of Krupnick’s potential witnesses against him, and of sneaking a document into evidence at trial that damaged Krupnick’s case. “Candidly, knowing Reid Cocalis, I’m extremely disappointed,” said Shahood, who served on the Broward Circuit Court for many years with Cocalis’ mother, Judge Patricia Cocalis. “In fact, if there’s an opinion [issued], I’m going to recommend it be referred to the Bar for further action.” Minutes later, Shahood added, “[It's] something one could be disbarred for, for God’s sake. I’m worked up about it.” The clash between the lawyers arose from a dog bite case involving a 2-year-old girl who was bitten by a 12-pound Maltese. In September 1996, the Maltese named Bruiser, owned by Michelle Brotman of Coconut Creek, bit neighbor Kelly Bradley on the lip. The child received several stitches at a hospital emergency room. Several weeks later, however, the child began to lose her hair. Doctors diagnosed her as having alopecia areata, an autoimmune skin disease that causes people to lose hair from the scalp and elsewhere. Experts say there is a hereditary link for alopecia, but what triggers it isn’t clear. Kelly’s parents, Kristen and Donald Bradley, sued Brotman, alleging that the stress the child suffered from the dog bite caused her alopecia symptoms. Brotman conceded liability for the dog bite. Her primary homeowner’s policy paid the Bradleys the policy limit of $300,000. Observers attributed the carrier’s willingness to pay the policy limit to the child’s young age, the potentially high costs associated with proving that the bite didn’t trigger the skin ailment, and fear of being sued later for bad faith. That left causation and damages as the only issues in dispute. Brotman had secondary coverage with GEICO Direct that was responsible for those damages. The insurer then hired Cocalis, a partner at Conrad & Scherer. In June 2000, a jury returned a verdict of $8,421 for the Bradleys. That was 1 percent of the $800,000 Krupnick had sought in a settlement proposal. Krupnick, a partner at Krupnick Campbell Malone Roselli Buser Slama Hancock McNelis Liberman & McKee, appealed. He asked the 4th District to strike Brotman’s pleadings on the issues of causation and permanence because of alleged misconduct by Cocalis. In an interview, Cocalis, who has no Bar disciplinary record, was alternately contrite and combative. “Obviously I’m distraught over Shahood’s comments,” Cocalis says. But Cocalis insists that he welcomes Bar scrutiny “because everything is going to come out. I don’t think [Shahood] has the complete picture. There was a lot of misconduct in this case, and I’m not talking about my conduct.” Krupnick declined to comment. The dispute pits two politically connected firms against one another. Conrad & Scherer, often represents doctors in medical malpractice cases. It’s headed by William Scherer, who is general counsel to the North Broward Hospital District. Scherer was one of George W. Bush’s major fund-raisers during the 2000 presidential campaign. Krupnick Campbell is a plaintiff firm that handles a lot of medical malpractice and personal injury work. Partner Skip Campbell is a Democratic state senator from Coral Springs. Cocalis used to work at Krupnick Campbell. He attributes his former association with the firm for the acrimony between the two sides in the case. “Jon Krupnick likes to get in your face and intimidate,” Cocalis says. “I’m not the sort of person to back down.” That animosity prompted Scherer and Campbell to intervene during one pretrial hearing. When Krupnick assailed the practices of Conrad & Scherer as “a cancer that will spread,” Scherer retorted that Krupnick’s “sanctimony” and “holier-than-thou” attitude “is astounding to me.” By court order, the discovery period in the case ended May 22, 2000. That same day, Krupnick notified Cocalis that Dr. Mark Bernhardt, a dermatologist who treated Kelly, would testify that the girl’s hair loss was caused by the dog bite. The next day, Cocalis phoned Bernhardt. Cocalis mentioned that he and some family members were patients of the doctor, Bernhardt said in a sworn statement. Cocalis then asked if Bernhardt was going to testify at trial about the cause of Kelly’s alopecia. Bernhardt said he told Cocalis that he was uncomfortable discussing the case with him, and suggested he call Krupnick. Cocalis responded that Krupnick could not be trusted and suggested that the doctor speak “off the record,” Bernhardt said. The doctor refused. He then phoned Krupnick to tell him about Cocalis’ call. Krupnick told Bernhardt he planned to inform the trial judge, Leonard Stafford, about Cocalis’ phone call. Bernhardt implored him not to, Krupnick said, saying that would put him in an awkward position with the Cocalis family. ‘SINISTER’ Krupnick informed Stafford anyway, because he believed that Cocalis had violated Florida laws and rules of civil procedure. He thought Cocalis had violated the prohibition against defense lawyers having ex parte contact with a plaintiff’s physicians, and breached doctor-patient confidentiality. “It is sinister for a defense attorney — after the pretrial cutoff — to call a doctor and ask for any information ‘off the record,’” Krupnick later argued in a brief to the 4th District. Cocalis says that he didn’t ask Bernhardt the specifics of the child’s condition, but merely was trying to confirm that the dermatologist would testify about the cause of the child’s hair loss. Cocalis notes that Bernhardt later made a sworn statement that he didn’t feel intimidated by Cocalis. In his appeal, Krupnick contended that Cocalis’ action caused him to drop Bernhardt as an important witness at trial, saying that Cocalis had indeed intimidated him and turned Krupnick’s own witness against him by saying he couldn’t be trusted. Krupnick asked the 4th District to send a message to lawyers who engage in a “win at all costs mentality” by making Conrad & Scherer pay his fees and costs, plus the fee of a guardian ad litem assigned to the case. He estimated that each firm incurred about $150,000 in costs. But Cocalis’ appellate attorney, Vanessa Reynolds, a partner at Conrad & Scherer, argued that Bernhardt would not have been allowed to testify anyway about the causation of Kelly’s hair loss. That’s because Krupnick hadn’t previously listed Bernhardt as an expert medical witness on causation. So the absence of Bernhardt’s testimony was harmless, she contended. ‘PROBLEM WITH PROFESSIONALISM’ Shahood wasn’t mollified by this line of reasoning during oral arguments. “With respect to Dr. Bernhardt, I have a real problem with professionalism,” he told Reynolds. “What justification, if any — give me one peppercorn, one scintilla.” “Your honor, I agree, Mr. Cocalis agrees that he suffered a regrettable lapse of judgment in contacting Dr. Bernhardt,” Reynolds said. “We would be the last ones to deny that it was a bad decision for Mr. Cocalis to call Dr. Bernhardt.” “More than call him,” Shahood shot back. “He even told him, ‘Don’t tell Krupnick that we talked.’ My God, where have we … forgive me panel, members of the audience.” “Our firm is not taking the position that this is some kind of minor thing we should be blowing off, or that it was an acceptable thing to do,” Reynolds replied. “We all recognize it’s not.” While it was Cocalis’ phone call to Bernhardt that angered Shahood, it was another action by Cocalis that may have had a bigger impact on the trial and which drew the most questions from the 4th District panel. A day after phoning Bernhardt, Cocalis issued the first of two trial subpoenas to dermatologist Dr. Mark Unis, instructing him to bring Kelly Bradley’s medical records with him to trial. He had been deposed earlier and had expressed no opinion about what caused Kelly’s alopecia. SMOKING GUN? In response to the subpoenas, Unis’ office mistakenly sent his records to Cocalis rather than bringing them to the trial. Cocalis then noticed that the doctor had written a notation that he had advised Krupnick he didn’t think Kelly Bradley’s alopecia was triggered by the dog bite. Krupnick agreed to allow Cocalis to enter Unis’ records into evidence at trial, because he assumed it was the same nonconsequential material gathered from the doctor during deposition. But during the trial, Krupnick learned about Unis’ notation, and he filed a motion to remove the note from evidence, saying he had been unaware of it earlier. Krupnick contended that the defense used subterfuge to get the note into evidence, preventing him from presenting rebuttal evidence. And he argued that it was inadmissible discovery material obtained after the discovery cutoff date. Stafford denied the motion, telling Krupnick that the proper remedy was a motion for a mistrial. Krupnick chose not to ask for a mistrial. During closing arguments, Cocalis showed jurors a 30-by-40-inch enlargement of Unis notation. During the oral arguments before the 4th District, Reynolds contended that Krupnick was remiss in agreeing to allow Unis’ records into evidence, and downplayed the significance of the doctor’s notation. The notation, she argued, “was one tiny note in a vast sea of expert testimony that there was no causal relationship.” Then why, 4th District Judges Martha Warner and Fred Hazouri asked, did Cocalis consider the notation so important that he enlarged it for the benefit of jurors? Krupnick told the judges that if he had known of Unis’ notation, he would have made a lower settlement offer. “I think we would have … settled this case,” he said.

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