From The Clinic to the Courtroom: A Pediatrician Shares His Path into Medical Law
Dr. Leon Aussprung is doctor-turned-lawyer, practicing in the areas of medical malpractice, catastrophic personal injury and wrongful death cases. He received his B.A. in Political and Social Thought from the University of Virginia, and his M.D. from Jefferson Medical College in 1991, followed by a residency in pediatrics at duPont Hospital. He received his J.D. from the University of Pennsylvania Law School in 1997, while moonlighting as an attending. He then obtained an LL.M. in Trial Advocacy with Honors from the Temple University Beasley School of Law in 2006. After practicing medicine for a decade, he now focuses solely on law.
H: How did you end up on the M.D., J.D. route?
Dr. Aussprung: One of my favorite classes during undergrad was a medical ethics class. My experiences in this class, along with being good at math and science, and my grandfather – a great doctor back in the day, who had his own hospital here in Philadelphia – led me to medicine.
My time at medical school wasn’t the greatest. I considered dropping out because I wasn’t enjoying what I was doing at all, but I decided to stick through. Then residency came along, and I was in Pediatrics. My fellow residents would talk about retiring early and doing something other than medicine, and that got me thinking about what I wanted to do next.
I considered hospital administration and working my way up to becoming the CEO, but hospitals are not very receptive to the idea of a doctor working his way up like that. Ultimately, I dug up my interest in ethics and decided to go to law school.
H: Did you find the transition from medicine to law difficult?
Dr. Aussprung: I actually did not. Medical school was a lot harder than law school, but practicing law is a lot more challenging than practicing medicine. Penn Law focused mainly on the history of law, so that part was fine. Stepping into the real world and actually practicing law was not very easy. However, since I specialized in medical malpractice, the transition was not too extreme.
I love what I do now, and I love that I don’t have to follow a rigid schedule. As a doctor, trying to find time for even a dentist’s appointment for yourself creates a crisis. Your secretary has to move around your patients’ times to accommodate your personal commitments. I used to feel like I had no control over my schedule, whereas now I work on a flexible schedule to the extent that if in the afternoon I wanted to take a long break to grab lunch with my wife, I could.
H: What advantage do you think your medical knowledge gives you as a lawyer?
Dr. Aussprung: My medical training definitely gives me a huge advantage. I would say I have a much shorter learning curve for my cases than lawyers without medical knowledge. I can look through the medical files and not be overwhelmed by their contents. And if a doctor uses jargon with me, I can understand what he or she is saying.
H: How do doctors confront malpractice lawsuits?
Dr. Aussprung: I see a lot of unnecessary anxiety. Admittedly, it’s natural to stress out about a lawsuit against you, but these doctors have lawyers. They have insurance that can cover the cost of the lawsuit. Practice and prestige are usually not affected because in Pennsylvania, all lawsuits require confidentiality. Hospitals don’t take away privileges of doctors, because that hurts the hospitals’ reputation as well. Medicine is quite hush about things like this— people know who the complacent doctors are, but they don’t want to say it out loud.
H: Why is there such a significant decrease in medical malpractice lawsuits?
Dr. Aussprung: Firstly, insurance companies have made it very expensive to litigate such cases. Lawyers are becoming very picky about the cases they take, because some cases might not be big enough to be economically feasible. In addition, experts in the field of medicine are needed for cases, as they can review the medical files and provide an expert testimony. This is an added expense and hurdle. All these reasons have made it difficult for people to find lawyers, essentially closing courthouse doors to people who wish to pursue such a lawsuit.
H: What is one of the most interesting cases you have taken?
Dr. Aussprung: I find it very interesting how hard it is to police the medical profession sometimes. For example, one of my cases involved a patient who had a massive stroke because
the nurse had accidentally given an overdose of heparin, a blood thinner. Instead of telling anyone why the patient had a stroke, the nurse covered it up. The hospital litigated the case for years even though they knew what had happened. Ultimately, the hospital decided they didn’t want to have him working with them, so they gave him a great recommendation and sent him elsewhere. The nurse never had to face any consequences because of his mistake.
H: How do you determine if a death or injury is the result of medical negligence or simply unavoidable?
Dr. Aussprung: The first question that we ask is, did it meet the standard of care? That itself is a very tricky question, because it is difficult to define what exactly the threshold for good care is. This is where expert testimony comes in. The experts help us determine if the doctor made a blatant error. An interesting example is a case from 2010-2012, when da Vinci Robots were used to aid in surgeries because they provided better visualization. It was later discovered that there was a defect in the robots, because they would leak electricity and burn the patient’s nearby blood vessels or internal organs. That was a defect in the robots, and not a case of the doctor’s negligence.
H: What do you do in your spare time?
Dr. Aussprung: I started karate in medical school, but then gave it up. I’ve taken it up again now because my daughter was interested in it, so now we go together a few times every week. Other than that, I’m a stamp collector and I like traveling. I have a dog named Ben, who travels with me and my family everywhere we go.