Michael Koskoff and Kathleen Nastri
Michael Koskoff and Kathleen Nastri ()

Top 10 lists are popular. Here’s one that’s more than a little interesting: Of the top 10 personal injury verdicts in Connecticut history, the Bridgeport firm of Koskoff, Koskoff & Bieder says it’s represented the plaintiffs in six of them.

In 2013, the firm won a $41.75 million jury verdict on behalf of a student who contracted tick-borne encephalitis on a school-sponsored trip to China. The firm was able to prove the school failed to take precautions that could’ve prevented the illness, which left the young woman unable to speak and with damaged motor skills.

With such a proven track record of success, a record that has led the Connecticut Law Tribune to honor Koskoff, Koskoff & Bieder with a Litigation Departments of the Year Award in the personal injury category, it’s a challenge for the law firm to decide what clients to take on. “First of all, we only do cases involving significant injuries or damages,” said partner Michael Koskoff. “Because of that, we feel that we can handle fewer numbers of cases and devote more resources to them. So we’re not looking at a volume practice. We never have.”

Koskoff said the firm gets an average of 1,500 inquiries per year for just medical malpractice cases, and it generally files 30 to 35 med-mal lawsuits. The firm has 18 lawyers and all but one litigates. That lawyer, Joel Lichtenstein, screens all of the potential med-mal cases that come in.

The screening process is rigorous. Some people call with legitimate complaints against health-care providers, but the potential damages aren’t high enough to make the case worth pursuing. In other cases, it turns out the provider wasn’t at fault for the bad medical outcome.

In the evaluation process, the firm’s leaders work backward, first estimating the potential award and then looking at the circumstances that caused the injury. “You start with the damages, and [then] you say what happened to the person and how could it have been prevented? If you can answer that question, then you’ve found the fault nine times out of 10,” said Koskoff. “So it’s a reverse process, a unique process and an effective way of looking at a case.”

And a necessary process, said Koskoff. The dollar figure has to be a major consideration, he said, given the cost of bringing a med-mal claim, particularly in paying expert witnesses.

“The screening we do I think is helpful even for people whose cases we don’t bring,” he said. “At least we give them answers when they haven’t been given them. It prevents frivolous lawsuits from being filed. In telling them why there is no case, sometimes they feel relieved. Part of the anguish is not only to have a serious injury but have the feeling it was preventable. We feel good about trying to help in those situations.”

Koskoff said his firm handles about 10 to 12 percent of the med-mal cases that are brought in Connecticut. He said about 60 percent of the firm’s work is med-mal. It also handles civil rights, product liability and motor vehicle cases involving catastrophic injuries.

Even though a high percentage of civil lawsuits end in out-of-court settlements, Koskoff said a key to the firm’s success is pursuing each case as if it’s going to trial. For one thing, he said, clients typically want their day in court.

“We’re ready to go to trial and not settle,” said Koskoff. “There’s been a huge push on mediation. However, I think there are a lot of lawyers now who view mediation as the way the case is going to end up and not trial, and I think it’s a huge mistake if you want to do right by your client. There are a lot of cases worth more than what an insurance company is willing to spend at a mediation.”

That strategy paid off last year in the $41.75 million verdict against the Hotchkiss School in Lakeville. In 2007, Cara Munn, then a ninth-grader, was bitten by insects as she and classmates walked through a densely wooded area in China. In its lawsuit, the Koskoff lawyers, led by Antonio Ponvert, claimed the school failed to ensure the students took precautions even though the wooded region was known to be a risk area for tick-borne encephalitis and other insect-transmitted illnesses.

The result was a far cry from what the school’s insurer initially offered, according to Koskoff.

“If you withdraw [the lawsuit], we’ll give a little money to the Hotchkiss School in your client’s honor,” Koskoff recalled the defendants’ insurer saying. “They just didn’t see it. I think they tend to blind themselves to the fact this is a little girl in the care of a school that had not lived up to its responsibilities. That’s true with a lot of cases we see.”

Last fall, in a med-mal case, a jury awarded $9.2 million after a 72-year-old woman was given too much of a blood-thinning medication while being treated for a urinary tract infection at Bridgeport Hospital. The woman bled into her abdomen and developed a blood clot requiring surgery. During her recovery, she developed a bacterial infection and an abscess on her neck and eventually had part of her shoulder bone removed. She is now in a wheelchair.

The firm also recovered a verdict of $6.5 million against Danbury Hospital after medical professionals raised the sodium levels of a patient too quickly, causing immediate brain damage and eventual death.

Also last year, four of the firm’s lawyers served as part of the Michael Jackson family legal team that brought a wrongful death case against the pop music legend’s concert promoter. The Koskoff lawyers helped with the medical aspects of the case.

Lawyers at the firm say their team approach to cases is crucial to their success.

Litigator Kathleen Nastri explained that every Monday the firm’s litigators meet to go over their cases. She said everyone is willing to help out. “I think one of the great things about the office in general is there is no competition among us,” said Nastri. “If someone’s on trial, there’s no negative feeling when a person wins. [There' no one thinking,] ‘Oh I wish I had that kind of case or had that kind of result.’ We all root for each other and feel each other’s pain when things don’t go as someone had hoped.”•