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Oral arguments in a health care case ended abruptly Wednesday when Los Angeles lawyer Robert Olson collapsed to the floor during a brutal barrage of unfriendly questioning. First District Court of Appeal Justices Carol Corrigan and Stuart Pollak had verbally hammered Olson for several minutes when he apparently fainted. His legs buckled and he fell backward, hitting his head hard on the floor. The California Highway Patrol officers who provide courtroom security revived an obviously dazed Olson and took him by ambulance to St. Francis Memorial Hospital. An emergency room nurse later said he underwent tests and that there was no evidence of a stroke or other heart problems. He was later released. Olson, a partner at Los Angeles’ Greines, Martin, Stein & Richland, was representing Health Net of California Inc., which had been sued for breach of contract by the San Francisco Trial Lawyers Association after refusing to renew health care coverage in 2003, six years after the policies were issued. Health Net contends that the association doesn’t qualify for coverage under state law because it has fewer than 1,000 members and did not provide health care benefits for at least five years prior to Jan. 1, 1992. The lawyers’ group counters by arguing that Health Net’s policies prevent it from terminating coverage unless there is good cause, such as failing to pay premiums. In late 2003, San Francisco Superior Court Judge Ronald Quidachay issued a preliminary injunction, requiring Health Net to maintain coverage for 300 of the association’s members and their dependents. The eventual outcome could affect any professional organization that provides health care benefits for its members. During Wednesday’s hearing in the appeal court, Olson, who graduated from Stanford Law School in 1983, was attempting to argue that Quidachay had no jurisdiction to hear the case and that the issue should be resolved by the state’s Department of Managed Health Care. “It’s not a discretionary call for the trial judge to make,” he insisted. That didn’t go over well with Corrigan and Pollak, who seemed incredulous that Olson would contend that the trial judge overstepped his bounds. “Contract cases normally come before the court,” Pollak said, “and that’s what we have here, right?” He and Corrigan demanded to know if Olson could point to language in the state’s Knox-Keene Act — which governs health care service plans — that denies jurisdiction to judges. When he said he couldn’t, Corrigan sharply rebuked him by saying that if the justices found it during their own research, they would tell him. The interaction got more intense when Olson noted that the Department of Managed Health Care had issued a letter stating that Health Net’s actions didn’t violate any provisions of the Knox-Keene Act. “That’s different from whether Health Net met its contractual obligations,” Corrigan snapped. “Are you suggesting this contract is unenforceable because of public policy?” She and Pollak also seemed infuriated by Olson’s suggestion that it should be implicit in all health care contracts that they are deemed invalid if insurers later find out they don’t have the statutory authority to provide that particular coverage. “Have you got a case where that was actually the holding?” Pollak asked. Olson said he didn’t have one “at the tip of my tongue.” Olson then tried to compare Health Net’s situation to that of a person trying to practice law without authorization. “It’s about whether you can continue to perform,” he argued. Corrigan stopped Olson short and asked if he “really wants to go down this road.” A second or two passed, then Olson said, “Excuse me, your honor,” before crumpling to the floor. Several spectators gasped, while others ran for help. Terrence Coleman and Arnold Levinson, partners at Pillsbury & Levinson representing the lawyers’ association, never got an opportunity to make their case. But afterward they said the justices’ questions indicated that victory would be theirs. Coleman said the arguments were going “phenomenally well” for his side, with the justices apparently “accepting” SFTLA’s position and being “offended” by Health Net’s arguments. If Health Net’s position prevailed, he added, “no contract provision would be worth the paper it’s printed on.” Oral arguments in the case, San Francisco Trial Lawyers Association v. Health Net of California, A104458, were rescheduled for Oct. 26. Presiding Justice William McGuiness was also on the panel.

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