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The Day I Was Designated a Process Server, I Was a 19 Year Old College Student. I Had NO IDEA What I Was Doing.

It was a medical malpractice case.

To be technically correct, it was a wrongful death AND medical malpractice case.

The surviving family brought a lawsuit against two cardiologists and a local hospital.

They claimed that the doctors were careless and that their wrongdoing caused and contributed to his death.

The attorneys for the doctors and the hospital said "Nonsense. We did nothing wrong and even if we did something wrong, it didn't cause or contribute to his death."

That was their defense.

The case took years to come to trial.

The defense refused to negotiate.

They refused to offer a dime.

That meant this case would go to trial.

In Nassau County Supreme Court.

Our trial level court.

The family's attorney was well known.

He was well respected.

He was a powerhouse in the field of personal injury cases in New York.

He had also been a judge.

A judge in the highest court in New York.

This attorney had achieved the very first million dollar verdict in the United States back in the mid-60's.

He'd also been the president of a powerful trial lawyer's association.

Pretty impressive credentials.

The defense had their own backstory.

Although as of today, I couldn't begin to tell you what it was.

I do recall that the attorney for the hospital and the attorney for the two cardiologists were long-time defense attorneys with a long history of representing doctors and hospitals.

If you have not had the benefit of reading my story that appears on my homepage of this website, I encourage you to click here. 

It will give you a behind-the-scenes look at how this case came about.

It will also give you an insight into this story I am sharing with you now.

If you read my homepage story you will immediately realize that the case I'm talking about here is personal.

It involved my father.

An Ob/Gyn.

He died on September 29, 1978.

He was 46 years old.

I was 14 at the time.

My mother hired the best attorney she could find to investigate her case.

After evaluating the case, he told mom that she had a good case.

He told her she had a valid case.

He said that the doctors and the hospital staff violated the basic standards of medical care.

That carelessness caused and contributed to my dad's death, according to the attorney and the medical experts he hired.

Mom sued the two doctors who were caring for my dad.

She also sued the hospital.

The case went all the way to trial.

By that time I was a junior in college.

I was 19 years old when dad's wrongful death & medical malpractice case came up for jury selection.

One evening, when I had returned home, our attorney came to the house.

He was preparing our case for trial.

He was updating mom on what she could expect to happen.

In his hand he had a bunch of papers called 'subpoenas'.

He said he needed help.

He needed someone to help him deliver these subpoenas to the people named on them.

He looked at me.

He asked me how old I was.

"Nineteen," I replied.

"Perfect," he said. "You're hired!"

"For what?" I asked.

To deliver some of these papers.

"All you have to do is hand this paper to the person named on here."

"You drive to the address on the paper, knock on the door and when he answers, just hand him this. You don't have to say anything," said my mom's famous attorney.

I didn't know it then, but I was being deputized to serve legal papers.

Actually, I was being asked to be a process server and I didn't even know it.

I didn't know what questions to ask him.

Now I do, but back then, I was just helping our attorney out.

He needed someone to do this and I was home and able to help.

There was no GPS back then.

There was no Google maps.

There was no Wayz.

There were no cell phones.

We didn't even have the internet back then.

(Can you BELIEVE that?)

That meant pulling out my trusty paper map I had gotten from the gas station.

After studying it for a few minutes I had identified the different locations I needed to travel to.

I knew generally how to get there.

I was told to go after 7:00 pm to make sure they'd be home.

He didn't tell me what to do if nobody was home.

He didn't tell me what to do if someone was home and refused to open the door.

He didn't tell me I'd need to make a written statement identifying exactly who I delivered the papers to.

He didn't tell me any of that.

Instead, he just handed me a stack of papers and said "Go deliver these."

He also didn't tell me how these people were involved in our case.

The first one I delivered was in Port Washington.

A residential community.

It was dark by the time I found the house.

I looked at the paper and located the correct address.

I looked again and realized I'm delivering this subpoena to one of the doctors my mom sued.

This was one of dad's cardiologists.

He was a named defendant.

That meant his name appeared in the caption of the lawsuit describing who was suing whom.

With a little trepidation I walked up the pathway to the doctor's home.

The screen door was closed but the main door was open.

I could see through the window that his family appeared to be sitting down for dinner.

My mouth went dry.

I was now going to confront one of the doctors whom my mom, my mom's attorney and our medical experts believed were responsible for dad's death.

I started to get butterflies in my stomach.

My legs started to get weak.

I walked with determination up to the door and rang the bell.

A woman came to the screen door.

"Yes, can I help you?" she asked.

"I have a delivery for Dr. Jones," I said quietly.

I didn't know what he looked like.

I had never spoken to him.

It was now five years since dad died.

I didn't know how he'd react to getting this subpoena.

Let me interrupt the story for a moment...

You should know what a subpoena is to give you a better understanding of what I was doing at this doctor's house at 7:00 p.m. on a weekday.

It's a document that commands you to come to court.

It tells you what date and time to be in court.

In fact, it COMPELLS you to come to court at a specfic date and time.

It also tells you that if you fail to appear, you can be held in contempt of court and fined a certain amount of money.

Let's get back to my story, which actually took place 34 years ago.

We're back in Port Washington.

I'm at the doctor's house.

She said "I'll go get him."

I suspect this was his wife.

Ten seconds later he comes to the door and opens the screen door.

"Yes?" he inquires.

"Doctor, this is for you. You've been served." I said getting my voice back.

He didn't really understand what this was until he looked at it as I was walking back to my car.

I heard his wife ask "What is it dear?"

He responded "It's a damned subpoena!"

With that I got back in the car, legs shaking, wondering what the heck I was doing delivering these legal papers.

It was now 7:05 p.m.

I had a 25 minute drive to get to my next location.

I thought I was again going to a doctor's house.

I was wrong.

Instead I was going to his office.

That's the address that was on the subpoena.

Apparently the doctor had late office hours that evening.

The neighborhood where his office was located was not impressive.

Not a great area.

Then again, not a bad area.

I parked my car and made my way to the office.

I didn't know what the doctor looked like.

I didn't know what he sounded like.

I just knew I had to deliver this legal paper to him.

I thought our entire case rested on my delivering this document to him.

I was wrong, but it didn't matter.

I walked into his office.

His waiting room was packed.

I went up to the receptionist and told her I had a delivery for Dr. Smith.

She asked "Are you a patient?"

"No, I'm not."

"Do you have an appointment?" she wondered.

"Uh, no I don't," I said.

She said "The doctor is busy seeing patients. I can take whatever you have and give it to him."

I didn't think that would be Ok.

I thought if I did that there'd be a problem.

I'd be blamed.

I responded somewhat awkwardly "No, that's Ok, I think I'll wait for him to come out."

I could see she thought that was weird.

"He has office hours for another hour. Are you sure you want to wait?" she asked.

"Yes, I'm sure," I responded.

I felt uncomfortable waiting in the waiting room.

Everyone there was waiting to be seen for a medical problem.

I was there to deliver this legal document to compel him to come to court and testify in our medical malpractice case.

I wanted to tell everyone in the waiting room why I was there.

I wanted to tell everyone waiting that they should run out of here immediately because of what this doctor did to my dad.

Then I realized that would be crazy.

Everyone would think I was crazy.

I also realized I just might be ruining the doctor's reputation by doing that.

I didn't need to escalate this subpoena delivery into a situation that might involve the police being called.

My job was to get in and get out.

Deliver the subpoena and leave.

Go back home.

Instead, I waited in my car.

For an hour.

No iPhone to look at during that time.

No wi-fi.

No internet to connect to.

No streaming satellite service.

Just basic AM/FM radio while sitting in the dark.

I felt like I was on a stake-out.

Watching the office door for signs of this doctor I was supposed to give this piece of paper to.

I had seen an old photo of him while I was in the office.

I hoped he still looked like he did in the photo.

Oh yeah...I forgot to mention that it was freezing outside.

This was winter.

An hour later I notice a guy walk out of the office with a woman next to him.

I assumed this was him.

I couldn't tell for sure.

I couldn't tell from where I was parked if this was really him.

I had to get out and try.

I bolted out of my car.

The area around my car wasn't that well lit.

It was slightly better lit near the doctor's office.

From what I remember today, this was a residential area that didn't have much traffic.

I started to close the distance between myself and this couple walking down the street.

They weren't paying any attention to me.

I crossed the street and started to make a beeline straight for him.

As I approached him I stammered out "Excuse me, are you Dr. Smith?"

He stopped in his tracks, looked up and said "Yes. Do I know you?"

I said "No, but I have something for you," and handed him the subpoena.

He took it not knowing what it was.

I stood there awkwardly for a moment as he began to realize what this was.

He started to get angry.

He started to yell as I walked away.

He started to scream at me about this lawsuit.

"How dare you come to my office and disrupt my patients! How dare you accost me in the middle of the street with my wife! I'm going to tell my attorney about this! DAMN YOU! he yelled as I was getting in my car.

I quickly turned on the ignition, put my manual shift car into gear and high-tailed it out of there.

I was shaking.

It was exhilarating but confusing for me.

I didn't understand exactly what I was doing and how it was going to help our case.

I didn't understand why I had to deliver these papers.

Nor did I understand why these doctors were reacting the way they did.

Ahh...looking back, there's a lot I didn't understand about the legal process.

Let me interrupt again for a moment.

It turns out I was a process server.

Just for a day.

My job was to deliver these papers.

To compel the doctors to show up in court.

On a specific date.

At a specific time.

I didn't no why.

Now I do.

The subpoenas were prepared by our attorney.

He had planned on calling each of these doctors to the witness stand.

These would be hostile witnesses.

They were adverse witnesses.

They were against us.

My mom, as the legal representative of my dad's estate had sued them.

Our lawyer was allowed to call these doctors to testify.

Either he could get the defense lawyers to voluntarily agree to bring their clients in to testify when our lawyer wanted them in or he could compel them to come in when he needed them.

Some lawyers, as a professional courtesy, agree to accept legal papers for their clients.

This avoids the need to serve a subpoena on a doctor and disrupt his office hours, his waiting room or even his activities at home.

In my opinion, a defense lawyer who does this is making a strategically smart move.

For himself and his client.

He gains the respect of his opponent by agreeing to this simple thing and saves the doctor the frustration and confusion associated with getting served with this formal looking court document.

There are many defense attorneys who want to play hardball and refuse to cooperate with even the simplest of requests.

Where the defense lawyer refuses to voluntarily bring in the doctor to testify when he is needed and he refuses to accept legal papers on behalf of his client, we'd have no choice but to serve the doctor with a subpoena.

But here's the interesting thing...

There are professionals who deliver these legal documents every day.

We call them process servers.

Their goal is to deliver legal papers every day.

They get paid to do this.

They know the local laws and rules regarding how these papers must be delivered.

They know what papers are required to be filed after they've delivered these legal papers.

So if there are professional process servers, why o' why did our lawyer enlist ME, a 19 year old college student, to deliver these subpoenas?

I suspect he didn't have time to hire a process server.

I suspect he was too close to trial to hire someone now.

Let's get back to the story...

I next saw our attorney a few days later.

In court.

He'd finished picking a jury and we had our case assigned to the trial judge.

I asked him outside of the courtroom if my delivering the legal papers were ok.

He said they were fine.

That was it.

He brushed off my vital involvement in this case as if it were nothing more than picking lint off his suit.

I didn't understand.

I thought my task was vital to the success of our case.

Turns out that my task was successful.

He then coordinated with the defense lawyers when the doctors would come into court to testify.

My first taste of process serving was also my last.

When I went to law school a few years later I learned that there is no reason for an attorney to run around town delivering legal papers.

Instead, an attorney simply hires a process server and gives them a stack of legal papers to deliver.

The professional process server then takes over and does what I did that day.

A few days later, the process server files a statement with the court that he delivered those papers and here's a description of who he left those papers with.

It's amazing to think that I remember the details of this so well, even though this happened 34 years ago.

To learn whether you have to open the door when a process server knocks on the door, I invite you to watch the quick video below...

 

 

 

 


Gerry Oginski
NY Medical Malpractice & Personal Injury Trial Lawyer