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The new leader of the New York trial lawyers’ organization wants to partner with doctors. Perhaps that is not as odd as it might sound, since she is married to one. Shoshana T. Bookson brings to the “tort reform” battle the unusual perspective of a plaintiffs lawyer whose husband practices perhaps the most legally vulnerable medical speciality: obstetrics and gynecology. Doctors with that specialty tend to get sued often by personal injury lawyers, and their insurance premiums typically are astronomical. But just as Bookson and Dr. Saul Stromer manage to live together in peace — and they swear they do — the lawyer and doctor see no reason why their respective professions cannot get along. “I think it is unfortunate that the doctors don’t see us as allies. I really do,” said Bookson, 45, who took over last month as president of the New York State Trial Lawyers Association. “They should not look on us as their enemy, because we are not their enemy.” Bookson, a senior partner at Shandell, Blitz, Blitz & Bookson in Manhattan, said her personal links to the medical community provide a balance to her professional life. And she insisted there is no reason for lawyers to be unwelcome in the medical family. “We are against bad doctors, not good ones, and the majority of them are good doctors,” she said in interview. “We know better than anybody that most of our lawsuits are against the same doctors over and over, and they know it is the same bad apples making these mistakes. That’s where they should see common ground with us.” Stromer agrees that the interests of trial lawyers and doctors are not inherently contradictory. “There is room for many professionals in this state,” he said. “My wife is one of them, and I’m one of them, and there’s plenty of room for plenty more. We co-exist wonderfully. I support all her endeavors as she supports mine.” Bookson is the 37th president of the Trial Lawyers Association and only the fourth woman to hold the position since it was established in 1953. She is also the fourth member of her firm to lead the group. The others were Richard Shandell, Bert Blitz and the late Herman Glaser, a founder of both the firm and the Trial Lawyers Association. Bookson is the daughter of a former state senator who used to bring her to the Capitol at the start of every session. “It always had a special magic for me to see the Legislature and government in action,” she said. Her father, Paul P. Bookson, represented Lower Manhattan from 1965 to 1975. He is now of counsel to Herzfeld & Rubin in Manhattan, where he practices commercial and corporate law as a civil litigator. “I still feel that little thrill when I go up there and walk through the halls of the Capitol,” Bookson said. “It still has that magic I felt as a child.” Bookson graduated from Queens College in 1979 and Cardozo Law School three years later. She has practiced with the Shandell firm ever since. TORT REFORM She may have to work some sleight of hand if the lawyers are to keep their ground. The tort reformers, which includes the Medical Society, lobby relentlessly on several fronts. Malkin & Ross, the trial lawyers’ Albany lobbying firm brought on board at the urging of Ralph Nader, usually has to fight hard just to avoid losing ground. “At the moment, we are content with maintaining the status quo,” Bookson said. “That is really the heart of our fight right now, to make sure none of the rights get curtailed, cut back or taken away.” So far, the trial lawyers have been largely successful, thanks in large part because Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver is one. Mr. Silver, a Manhattan Democrat, dislikes tort reform about as much as the Senate Majority Leader Joseph L. Bruno, R-Rensselaer County, likes it. The trial lawyers made what proved to be an astute political call in 1995, when the organization, which had parted with Democratic Governor Mario M. Cuomo in a tort reform debate, supported Republican George E. Pataki. Pataki has been in the executive chamber ever since, and if he is not exactly a strong supporter of the trial lawyers’ agenda, at least he is not an active opponent. The governor has vaguely endorsed the concept of tort reform but has never made it a priority. In recent years, the doctors and lawyers, spending about the same on lobbying, have largely battled to a dead heat. For now, Bookson considers that a victory. Advocates of limiting tort suits “started a press campaign at least 15 years ago and have tried it in most every state,” Bookson said. “In many states, they have succeeded, but not in New York. We have not had any tort reform of any significance despite all of these efforts.” The closest battles seem to be over the vicarious liability auto leasing law and the strict liability provisions of Labor Law �240. Bookson is largely in a defensive posture. If she and her lobbyists prevent significant movement on tort reform, she hopes to push an agenda that would include a date-of-discovery rule and emotional damages in wrongful death cases. Now, the statute of limitations for a personal injury action begins when the injury occurs, not when it is discovered. And the state recognizes only pecuniary losses in wrongful death, which means an injury to a non-earning spouse or child is basically worthless. “I am hoping at some point we will be in a position to accomplish a positive legislative agenda and not just hold fast,” she said. “My job is to keep reminding people that there are reasons lawsuits are brought. It is not because people are sue-happy. It is because there are dangerous conditions, there are negligent doctors and there are dangerous drivers out there.” WILLING TO COOPERATE Mark Alesse, state director of the National Federation of Independent Business and a major proponent of tort reform, said he is willing to cooperate with Bookson and the trial lawyers, assuming they “don’t deny what is in front of their eyes” and admit that the tort system is chronically abused. “If she is willing to acknowledge that which we know to be true, which no one outside the trial bar denies to be true, then yes, we can work with her,” Alesse said. “We know there are legitimate cases but we have social problems driven by a system that her trade association defends as perfect and claims the only way to make it more than perfect is to make it easier to litigate.” Alesse said his members and the trial lawyers share a stated interest in the “little guy.” But from the trial lawyers’ perspective, that means giving them access to courts so they can “turn small misfortune into financial fortune” while the business community aims for fewer job-destroying lawsuits, he said. “Everybody knows there are too many lawsuits when lawyers are advertising on the sides of buses and on the cover of the Yellow Pages and billboards,” Alesse said. “Yes, there are real accidents and there is real negligence in an increasingly populated and complicated world. But no, there aren’t as many true cases of negligence as all the liars out there are heating up with their advertising.” Bookson and Stromer, parents of three young children, expect her duties as president of the Trial Lawyers to consume a great deal of time and effort this year. The post will unquestionably take time away from her practice and family life as she travels frequently to Albany to cross swords with Alesse and others. “The joke is we are like the couple in the small town where one owns the nursing home and the other owns the funeral home,” Bookson said. ” One way or the other, they make a living.”

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