A Maryland state senator joined the defense team in a medical malpractice lawsuit last month even though he has limited legal expertise in that area, a move the plaintiff’s attorney called a “sham” intended to win a last-minute trial delay.
Baltimore City Circuit Court Judge Althea M. Handy denied the defense team’s request to postpone the trial until after the Maryland General Assembly’s legislative session, ruling that the court could not find any reason for Sen. Robert A. Zirkin (D-Baltimore County) to have joined the case at the “11th hour” other than to seek a delay.
By that time, Zirkin had already withdrawn from the defense team. He stepped down after the plaintiff’s attorney objected to the delay request. Zirkin said in an interview this week that he did not want his presence to be a distraction.
“What was stated by the plaintiff’s counsel was false and incredibly insulting,” Zirkin said, adding that he has worked on a couple of medical malpractice cases with William Murphy Jr., a lawyer who also joined the defense team last month. “I have worked exceptionally hard to build a law practice and build a reputation as a good lawyer, and for someone to say otherwise is insulting and incorrect.”
Lawmakers who are also lawyers are allowed to use “legislative privilege” to seek delays in trials that overlap with the Maryland General Assembly’s annual 90-day legislative session.
Zirkin joined the defense team Jan. 24, 13 days after the start of the session and 13 days before the trial was to begin. The next day, the defense team asked the judge to delay the trial for about 60 days, citing Zirkin’s responsibilities in Annapolis.
In response, plaintiff’s attorney H. Briggs Bedigian accused Zirkin, who chairs the Senate Judicial Proceedings Committee, of abusing legislative privilege.
“It appears that [Zirkin’s] appearance in this case is fueled by financial gain for Senator Zirkin by literally selling access to his Legislative Privilege to the Defendants of which he provides little benefit for,” Bedigian wrote in a letter to the court Jan. 27. “Mr. Zirkin has failed to identify what he adds to this team of six defense lawyers other than a means to this postponement due to his legislative privilege.”
The request for a delay, and the judge’s denial, were first reported by the Daily Record newspaper.
Hassan Murphy, managing partner at Murphy, Falcon & Murphy, said his firm added Zirkin to its team because he is “an energetic and talented trial lawyer. He was slotted to be a full-fledged member of the defense team, and during the brief time he was involved, he made a tremendous contribution, as expected, and was deeply involved in the preparation of our defense.”
Handy said the University of Maryland Medical System Corp., the defendant in the lawsuit, appeared to be well-represented by Neal M. Brown, a veteran medical-malpractice trial lawyer and the attorney of record for the previous 15 months.
She said Zirkin’s law practice focuses on “legal services for car, truck and motorcycle accidents, traffic tickets, DUIs, criminal defense, dog bites and divorce.”
Bedigian raised ethical questions about Zirkin’s role in the case, saying his job as a state lawmaker should make him ineligible to represent the University of Maryland, a quasi-governmental entity.
The ethics adviser to the legislature did not return a call made Thursday to inquire about whether lawmakers can work as attorneys in such circumstances.
Karen Lancaster, a spokeswoman for the hospital system, said that the trial began Feb. 6, and that the parties reached an out-of-court settlement Tuesday. She said the terms of the settlement are confidential.
“The allegations made by the plaintiffs’ counsel regarding our engagement of Mr. Zirkin are completely without merit,” Lancaster said. “It’s unfortunate that in order to avoid further disparagement, Mr. Zirkin withdrew his representation of UMMS in this case.”
Zirkin has been a member of the General Assembly for 17 years, for the last decade in the state Senate.
In the House of Delegates, he served on the Judiciary Committee. In the Senate, he was first assigned to the Budget and Taxation Committee and since 2011 has been a member of the Judicial Proceedings Committee, which deals with such issues as criminal and civil laws, penalties and procedures, motor vehicle laws, including drunken driving, the legal profession and public safety.
He was named chairman of the committee in 2015.
Last year, Zirkin helped broker compromises on sweeping criminal justice legislation and Noah’s Law, which toughened the state’s drunken-driving statutes. He also led an effort to water down a bill that would have imposed jail time on adults convicted of providing alcohol to people younger than 21.
This year, Judicial Proceedings is weighing legislation on bail reform and criminal procedures concerning rape evidence. The committee is also considering how state and local law enforcement officers should deal with enforcement of federal immigration law.