GW's Jack Olender Gives as Good as He Gets
by Hope Katz Gibbs
This article was originally published in May, 1995 in GW Magazine.
Attorney Jack 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 reform, a subject that has drawn a lot of attention in the months since the U.S. House of Representatives passed the "Common Sense Product Liability and Legal Reform Law," a bill which put a $250,000 cap on malpractice awards for non-economic damages such as pain and suffering.
Olender is one of Washington's most prominent malpractice lawyers. He is also the National Law Center's new Annual Fund chairman. During this talk show, however, his task is to debate the problems of tort reform. Olender's opponent on the show is Roger Conner, founder and executive director of the American Alliance for Rights and Responsibility, based in Washington, D.C. Conner is also an attorney. The referee is the show's host, Shirley Rooker. Dressed in a tailored black suit, a starched white shirt, and a matching black and white tie, Olender adjusts his earphones, and nods to Rooker that he is ready. The debate begins.
"There are too many frivolous lawsuits in the courts," says Conner. "The question for all of us is the significance of the 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 is calm, even smiling as Conner speaks. Then he responds. "The way our system works is beautiful," says Olender. "Of all the lawsuits that go to court, far less than one percent are frivolous. If the proposed law passes, we are in effect locking the courthouse doors. This bill requires that the loser pay and limits non-economic damages to $250,000 for people who are seriously and totally injured. The only winners in this type of reform are big business and the medical industry," he adds. "I think this law encourages doctors to be more lax and I predict quality control will get even worse. This type of reform is pocketbook motivated. 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."
The debate continues for about 20 minutes before Rooker thanks both lawyers for participating. Throughout the discussion, Olender keeps his cool. Conner, who after the taping said that debate went "predictably," raised his voice a few times, frustrated when Olender interrupted him.
Despite a reserved exterior, Olender admits the bill could become law. "This is a free country," he says. "If these kinds of limits are what Americans want, this is what we'll have."
He has been on at least a dozen talk shows since the House passed the bill this 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, 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
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 U.S. attorneys who have won million-dollar verdicts in injury cases.
Olender joined those ranks in 1976 when he made national headlines by successfully arguing that the parents 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 not 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 help themselves."
Proof of his conviction is visible in the decor of his large office suite. The child in the 1976 case, Janetta Moore, is pictured in several framed photos, which 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.
"That 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 Janetta 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 enemies accuse him of personally causing an increase in the number of unnecessary Caesarean sections, because doctors fear they'll get sued if something goes wrong during a vaginal birth.
To most everyone who knows him, Jack Olender is the King of Personal Injury Lawsuits.
WORKING WITH THE NATIONAL LAW CENTER
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.
He worked as a teaching fellow while at GW, and there met a key contact -- Jerome Barron, who later became NLC dean. "He was also a teaching fellow who was a year ahead of me," says Olender. "When I graduated, he recommended me to another lawyer, who in turn gave me some research and writing work at the Epilepsy Foundation."
The job paid only $5 per hour, but gave Olender the funds he needed to get started. "Looking back, I do not think I could have established a law practice without that work," he says. "Earning $5 an hour may not seem like much today, but in the early 1960s it was a lot of money. That's a small example, or maybe a big example, how someone from GW has helped me."
Throughout his career, Olender has stayed in touch with 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 also responsible for getting GW's name on a local chapter of the American Inns of Court. Through that organization, based on the Inns of Court in England, law students benefit from veteran lawyers' wisdom at dinners and other events.
"We were establishing an Inn of Court and I suggested it be called the George Washington American Inn of Court because a number of the founders were GW graduates," says Olender. "What better name?"
One of the reasons he has been so active at the University is his admiration for President Stephen Joel Trachtenberg. "I like Steve Trachtenberg," he says. "I think he's a fine person, and an excellent leader. He is a very vital person. I think he's done very good things for GW."
Trachtenberg has equally nice things to say about Olender. "He is an outstanding lawyer," says Trachtenberg. "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."
Trachtenberg is grateful that Olender has agreed to be Annual Fund chair. "I know he will do a great job for the law school in that position."
UP CLOSE AND PERSONAL
Olender conducts his practice and charity work from a building on Farragut Square. His suite occupies an entire floor. On the walls of his outer office hang framed newspaper and magazine clips about him.
He has made headlines in The Washington Times, which called 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 even Pravda noted the "famous American lawyer" when he presented one of his annual Peacemaker Awards to Mikhail Gorbachev.
In the electronic media, Mike Wallace on "60 Minutes" and Erin Moriarity on "48 Hours" have interviewed him.
Olender doesn't take kudos or criticism to heart. He just does his job. "I 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 alone, he won nine cases for settlements of more than $1 million each. Still, despite his extraordinary success, he remembers where he came from.
Born in September 1935, he grew up in a somewhat sheltered home. His father was a Jewish immigrant who journeyed to America from Eastern Europe in the early 1900s and settled in McKeesport, Pa., about 10 miles southeast of Pittsburgh. He ran a grocery store.
Tragedy struck the Olender household 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 during Olender's childhood. He had to quit the debate team in high school because his father didn't want him to ride to nighttime competitions in any of his friends' cars.
He attended college and law school at the University of Pittsburgh. There he developed his interest in medicine as it relates to the law. In 1959, as articles editor of the 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. "Professionals -- doctors and lawyers too -- should be willing to admit when we mess up and we should strive to use our abilities so we serve as best we can."
Hope Katz Gibbs is a freelance writer in the Washington, D.C., area.