So why is a former Michigan gubernatorial candidate suing South Carolina’s top judge and court?
There are 30 million reasons, if you read Geoffrey Fieger’s lawsuit.
Fieger, an unsuccessful candidate in Michigan’s 1998 governor’s race but probably best known as the attorney for assisted-suicide advocate Dr. Jack Kevorkian, claims in a federal suit that the S.C. Supreme Court is violating his constitutional rights by refusing to let him retry a $30 million medical malpractice case in the Palmetto State.
On Tuesday, U.S. District Court Judge Cameron Currie in Columbia dismissed the suit, adopting earlier recommendations by a federal magistrate.
It’s unclear whether Fieger will appeal Currie’s ruling. Efforts by The Nerve to reach Fieger at his Detroit-area office were unsuccessful.
Fieger was considered a potential lead Democratic candidate in Michigan’s gubernatorial race this year, but he announced in May that he would not seek the office. He was the Democratic nominee in the 1998 governor’s race, losing to Republican incumbent John Engler.
Fieger gained fame in the 1990s for obtaining several acquittals for Dr. Kevorkian, a Michigan pathologist who claimed he had assisted in more than 130 suicides. Fieger didn’t represent Kevorkian when the doctor was convicted in 1999 of second-degree murder in the assisted suicide of a terminally ill man.
Fieger’s federal lawsuit, which names the S.C. Supreme Court, Chief Justice Jean Toal and Justice John Kittredge as defendants, doesn’t seek any money damages but asks the court to allow him to retry the Lexington Medical Center case in South Carolina.
Millions in legal fees for Fieger are at stake.
But his lawsuit also is costing S.C. taxpayers. Through July, the Supreme Court has racked up $38,686 in legal fees to a private law firm to defend the suit, and another $2,242 in court costs, said Supreme Court Court Clerk Dan Shearouse when contacted last week by The Nerve.
Shearouse said he didn’t know whether the costs would come directly out of the Judicial Department’s budget or whether it would be covered by the state’s Insurance Reserve Fund.
Mike Sponhour, spokesman for the S.C. Budget and Control Board, which oversees the fund, told The Nerve last week that the legal fees are covered through “supplemental coverage the court buys,” though he said state law prohibited him from disclosing the amount “until the case is closed.”
Fieger, known for his flamboyancy in and out of the courtroom, doesn’t have an S.C. law license, but he was previously allowed under state court rules to handle the medical malpractice case against Lexington Medical Center that resulted in a $30 million jury verdict for his client in 2006. The trial judge, however, overturned the award in 2007 and ordered a new trial.
At the 2006 Lexington County trial, Fieger told a local reporter that he has ties to South Carolina, including a place on Hilton Head.
In an unrelated matter, Fieger was later indicted on federal charges that he illegally funneled campaign money for Democratic U.S. Sen. John Edwards’ 2004 presidential bid, but he was acquitted of the charges in 2008.
After Fieger was charged, the five-member S.C. Supreme Court banned him from handling the retrial involving Lexington Medical Center. The justices upheld the suspension in a split 3-2 vote last year, even though Fieger had been acquitted in his criminal case.
In his federal suit filed April 27 in U.S. District Court in Columbia, Fieger claims that the Supreme Court’s July 2009 order was “grossly unconstitutional.”
“After winning a $30 million jury verdict, three members of the South Carolina Supreme Court simply decided to remove plaintiff’s counsel from the underlying state court proceedings,” said Fieger, who is representing himself in the suit, in an Aug. 30 written response to a court report. “And because they had no legitimate reasons to do so, they created a false record in secret.”
Federal Magistrate Paige Gossett on Aug. 16 recommended that Fieger’s suit be dismissed, ruling that prior court rulings banned him from bringing his case to the lower federal courts.
Fieger had pushed for a relatively quick ruling; court papers indicate the retrial of the Lexington Medical Center case is scheduled for November.
The three S.C. Supreme Court justices voting to uphold Fieger’s suspension were Toal, Kittredge and Justice John Waller, who has since retired. The two justices who favored lifting the suspension were Costa Pleicones and Donald Beatty.
In their July 23, 2009, order, the majority of justices said Fieger falsified his application to be admitted under S.C. court rules to handle the Lexington Medical Center case.
They also cited Fieger’s “established misconduct in other jurisdictions, including threatening witnesses, excessively and disruptively arguing with a trial judge’s ruling, and repeatedly submitting false information on applications (to appear in other out-of-state courts on individual cases).”
Fieger in court papers said the justices provided no evidence of their allegations and never gave him a hearing on the accusations.
Attorney Elizabeth “Betsy” Van Doren Gray of the Columbia firm of Sowell Gray Stepp & Laffitte, who is representing the Supreme Court, Toal and Kittredge, declined comment when contacted last week by The Nerve.
Gray is a veteran trial lawyer and past president of the S.C. Bar, the state’s professional organization for lawyers. She is being assisted in the case by another attorney in her firm, Tina Marie Cundari.
Fieger, a licensed Michigan attorney, said in court papers he was appointed in 2002 under S.C. court rules as the lead plaintiff’s attorney in the Lexington Medical Center case.
In the Lexington County lawsuit, the family of Dr. Asif Sheikh, 58, an orthopedic surgeon who held a top position at Lexington Medical, contended that the hospital and two other doctors were negligent in their care of Sheikh, who died in 2002 about 17 hours after undergoing a double-knee replacement surgery at the hospital.
After a five-week trial, a jury in August 2006 found that the hospital and an anesthesiologist were responsible in Sheikh’s death and awarded his estate $30 million. Fieger had asked the jury to award the family $55 million.
But trial judge Diane Goodstein in March 2007 overturned the verdict, saying in a written order that the $30 million award “shocks the conscience of this court.” Goodstein also ordered that a new trial be held.
It’s not known how much Fieger would earn in legal fees if the $30 million award stands in a retrial and if he is allowed to retry the case. Plaintiffs’ lawyers in those types of cases typically receive at least 30 percent of awards, which means Fieger, if he is allowed back on the case, could receive at least $9 million out of a $30 million verdict. Plaintiffs’ lawyers who work on a contingency-fee basis generally don’t receive anything if they lose.
Fieger in his federal lawsuit said he had done nothing while practicing in the S.C. court system that should prevent him from retrying the Lexington Medical Center case.
“He had been a member of the South Carolina court for five years,” Fieger said about himself in his initial complaint. “Apparently, his sin was winning a $30 million dollar verdict.”
Reach Brundrett at (803) 254-4411 or firstname.lastname@example.org.