By Hope Katz Gibbs
MALPRACTICE ATTORNEY JACK H. OLENDER (LLM ’61) is seated behind a microphone at “Of Consuming Interest,” a talk show at Washington radio station WTOP. Today’s topic is tort report, a topic that has drawn a lot of attention in the months since the U.S. House of Representatives passed the “Common Sense Product Liability Reform Law,” a bill which could put a $250,000 cap on malpractice awards and non-economic damages such as pain and suffering.
Olender is doing everything he can to make sure it doesn’t become law.
Today, he is debating the pros of can of the legislation with fellow attorney Roger Conner, founder and executive director of the DC-based American Alliance for Rights and Responsibility. The referee for the show is WTOP’s Shirley Rooker.
Dressed in a finely cut black wool suit, starched white shirt and a matching and requisite red tie, Olender adjusts the microphone as his opponent takes the first shot.
“There are too many frivolous law suites in the courts,” Conner says. “The question for all of us is the significance of cases that do go to court. This is an indication of people not taking responsibility for their lives and not accepting the consequences. People have come to see our civil reform system as a lottery rather than a place for compensating real loss.”
Olender grins, then responds: “The way our system works is beautiful. Of all the lawsuits that go to court, far less than 1 percent are frivolous. This law effectively locks the courthouse doors. It requires the loser pay and limits the non-economic damages to $250,000 for people who are seriously injured. The only winners in this type of reform are big businesses and the medical industry.”
He takes a slow breath, then adds: “I think this law encourages doctors to be more lax and I predict quality control will get even worse. Doctors, insurance companies, and big business in the U.S. have found a way to get out of paying the full value for the damages or death that they cause through faulty products or faulty medical care. This bill was passed in the House because big business paid big bucks to help get the Republicans into office. Now, it’s payback time.”
Rooker eggs the men on, asking questions she knows will inspire a reaction. The lawyers argue back and forth for about 30 minutes before Rooker has what she needs. She thanks both lawyers for participating. Conner says after the taping said that debate went “predictably.” And in a taxi ride on the way back to his office, Olender admits the bill could very likely become law.
“This is a free country,” he says. “If these kinds of limits are what Americans want, this is what we’ll have.”
Of course, the cut-through attorney isn’t going to let the bill be passed without a dogfight. His agenda includes talking on as many radio and news programs as he can. In April, he spoke at a workshop on legal reform for journalists held at the National Press Club and has been on at least a dozen talk shows since the spring.
“I am working to enlighten the public about what this bill will mean for them,” he says. “We constantly hear about the medical tragedies that are going on. The wrong breast is being removed, prostates are erroneously being removed, the wrong leg is being amputated, and the wrong side of the brain is being operated on. It is becoming an epidemic. Something needs to be done. We do not, however, need to be further victimizing the patients.”
DEFENDING THE NEEDY with such eloquent speeches have helped win Olender
his place as one of the nation’s top malpractice attorneys. He is a member of the Inner Circle of Advocates, made up of a small, elite group of attorneys who have won multi-million-dollar verdicts in injury cases.
Olender joined those ranks in 1976 when he made national headlines by successfully arguing that the parent of a brain-damaged baby deserved compensation. A jury of the D.C. Superior Court awarded the child $2.5 million in damages, then the highest amount ever awarded in the country in an obstetric malpractice case.
The fees aren’t what motivate him, he says. “I am no a selfish professional. I don’t come to work and think about how much money I can make today. I do this because I want to help the people who can’t themselves.”
Proof of his conviction is visible in the decor of his large office suite. The child in
the 1976 case, Janeta Moore, is pictured in several framed photos that sit behind his desk. A painting she did with a paintbrush wand attached to her head is framed and hangs on the wall.
“In the trial, the doctors predicted she would never be able to do anything,” says Olender. “Today, she is 20 years old and attends college. The money has helped her develop the skills she has. She paints, and types letters on a computer. The lawsuit enabled her to have the wherewithal to have the best care and training to maximize her learning. It was a good thing for her, and a good thing for the public. In fact, one of the administrators at the hospital where Janeta was born told someone who told me that the suit was the best thing that ever happened to their obstetrics department.”
Olender has continued fighting doctors and hospitals and scoring impressive triumphs. He has won more than 70 cases in which the damages awarded totaled more than $1 million each.
Last November in the D.C. Superior Court, in Reyes vs. Group Health Association, the jury awarded $2.1 million to Olender’s client, a woman suffering from colon cancer.
“The doctor should have diagnosed her earlier when she came in with signs and
symptoms, according to the American Cancer Society,” he says. “Appropriate tests were not done for nine months. By that time the cancer had gone through the wall of the colon and changed her prognosis from very good to terminal.”
His friends call him a savior, a man who champions the ordinary person. They thank him for helping to keep doctors in check. His rivals accuse him of personally causing an increase in the number of unnecessary Caesarean sections because doctors fear they’ll be sued if something goes wrong during a vaginal birth. To most everyone who knows him, Jack Olender is the King of Personal Injury Lawsuits.
WHEN HE’S NOT IN COURT, Olender devotes himself to community service. In addition to giving thousands of dollars to charity through the Jack and Lovell Olender Foundation and serving on the boards of the University of the District of Columbia, the Greater Washington Urban League, and the Dr. Ben Carson U.S.A. Scholars, he gives considerable time to the NLC.
For years before taking over as chair of the school’s annual gift fund, he worked closely with Dean Jack Friedenthal. The dean says, “Jack Olender is a real friend of the law school. He has been a long-time member of the alumni board and has really supported us in every way you can think of. Whenever we ask him to do something, he always answers yes. That’s something you treasure.”
More than once, Friedenthal has spotted Olender walking around GW’s campus in between meetings, conducting his own office business on his cellular phone. “He is dedicated to the University and the community,” says the dean, who hopes that Olender’s leadership of The Law School Annual Fund will help raise more than $500,000 this year.
Olender’s affiliation with GW started in 1960, when he enrolled in an LLM program in forensic medicine. He had recently graduated from the University of Pittsburgh Law School and wanted to learn more about medicine and the law before going into practice. So he worked as a teaching fellow and met Jerome Barron, who later became NLC dean.
Upon graduation, Barron recommended Olender to another lawyer who needed an assistant for work at the National Epilepsy Foundation. The job paid only $5 per hour, but it was a start. “It just goes to show how much my connections from GW have helped.”
Throughout his career, Olender has been a friend to his alma mater. He has been the president of the law alumni association’s D.C. chapter and currently serves on both the GW Law Alumni Association’s Board of Directors and the Dean’s Board of Advisors. He was responsible for getting GWs name on a local chapter of the American Inns of Court.
GW’s President Stephen Joel Trachtenberg has also been a strong ally. “Jack is an outstanding lawyer,” Trachtenberg says. “But as good as he is a lawyer, he is an even more accomplished leader in the Greater Washington area. I hardly ever go to an event of some consequence without seeing Jack Olender there.”
OLDENDER PRIDES HIMSELF ON BEING in the center of the action, and the location on his office is no exception. His firm takes up an entire floor of a building smack dab in the middle of Farrugut Square. The foyer is decorated with framed newspaper and magazine clips announcing his triumphs.
Among them is a cover story in The Washington Times that calls him the “Legal champion of injured people and the pre-eminent expert on brain-damaged babies.” Washingtonian magazine dubbed the attorney “Jack the Ripper,” an allusion to his courtroom style of interrogation.
In The Congressional Record, D.C.‘s former delegate Walter Fauntroy said Olender was an “effective merging of compassion and professional expertise.” And Pravda covered the “famous American lawyer” when he presented one of his annual Peacemaker Awards to Mikhail Gorbachev (see article: Some Enchanted Evening.)
He’s also been interviewed by Mike Wallace on “60 Minutes” and Erin Moriarity on “48 Hours.”
Whether he’s made out to be a hero or a foe, Olender says he doesn’t take it to heart. “I just try to be professional because emotion doesn’t cut it,” he says. “The cases I try have to be made scientifically. Getting mad doesn’t accomplish anything. You want to get even.”
He has gotten even, and has reaped the rewards. Last year he won nine cases for settlements of more than $1 million each.
Despite his extraordinary success, he remembers his roots. Born in September 1935 to Jewish immigrants who settled southeast of Pittsburgh. His father ran a grocery store. Before Jack was born, his two older brothers died as children—one in a sledding accident, the other from influenza.
After that, safety came first for Olender’s father. He made Jack quit the debate team in high school because want him to ride to nighttime competitions in any of his friends’ cars.
His dad’s preoccupation with health and safety led him to develop an interest in medicine when he attended college and law school at the University of Pittsburgh. In 1959, as an editor at the school’s law review, he wrote an 18-page analysis titled “Donation of Dead Bodies and Parts Thereof for Medical Use.”
He also worked as a summer clerk for a Pennsylvania lawyer who handled personal injury cases. It was then Olender decided to study forensic medicine. He left home at 24 to pursue that interest in Washington and has never left—much to the chagrin of many D.C. obstetricians and gynecologists. He has worked over more than one doctor on the stand. And his long experience in malpractice law hasn’t softened his views on what
he sees as the abuse of power in much of the medical profession.
“If anything, I’ve hardened in the last couple of years,” says Olender. “Organized medicine has put up such a fight to destroy their patients’ rights. It’s a terrible thing.”
One of his biggest frustrations is the difficulty in getting doctors to testify for patients. “Doctors don’t want to be scrutinized by their colleagues and put themselves out on a limb,” he says. “Many doctors admit under oath they won’t testify for this reason. They don’t want to be hated by their fellow doctors.”
In his own way, Olender is trying to change the system. “I’d like to see the medical professionals do things in a way that will help people, and not harm them through carelessness or shoddy practices,” he says. “Doctors and lawyers should be willing to admit when we mess up and we should strive to use our abilities so we serve as best we can.”