Eleni Coffinas Fights for Justice

In the halls of Kings County Supreme Court, the busiest civil court in New York State, thousands of judges have heard and ruled on all manner of cases. Yet only one, Nicholas Coffinas, is immortalized with a brass plaque in the courthouse lobby, between the flags of the United States and New York State. The Honorable Nicholas Coffinas sat on the bench for more than 30 years and earned the admiration of fellow judges, lawyers, jurors, ordinary citizens, and even hard-bitten journalists who covered his trials.

Today, his daughter Eleni Coffinas is blazing her own trail in the halls of justice as a plaintiff’s trial lawyer, specializing in medical malpractice in one of the oldest and most prestigious personal injury firms in New York.

Coffinas, who has been practicing with Sullivan Papain Block McGrath & Cannavo (SPBMC) since she passed the bar exam in 1986, has built a solid reputation as one of the highest-rated trial attorneys in her field. She and both her sisters – one older, the other younger – followed their father’s example and counsel, all three now practicing law.

“In some ways, my father raised us like three boys instead of three girls, and I actually mean that in a positive sense,” Coffinas said, remembering that both her parents, American-born of Greek immigrant parents, “stressed education above everything else. The mantra growing up was, ‘Just go to law school, you don’t have to practice law, just get the degree.’ I can still hear my father saying it.”

In an age when the long-established custom of spending an entire career with one company has all but vanished, Coffinas has chartered a steady course with the same personal injury firm for her entire career of more than 20 years, and attends to it with the same relish she had right after graduating from Brooklyn Law School.

“I think in law school I always knew I wanted to be a trial lawyer. My heart was always on the side of the plaintiff, the person who was injured, not on the other side, and I’m very singularly focused that way.”

Calling SPBMC “the firm to be at” both in 1986 and today, Coffinas said she began trying all types of plaintiff personal injury cases “as a very young lawyer, in my 20s, and that was the best training for me.”

Then about 1993, senior partner Robert G. Sullivan chose her to fill a vacancy: running the firm’s medical malpractice department, a job she says has “nothing routine about it.”

“Part of it was need – the person who had been here two decades running that department left, and maybe [Sullivan] saw something in me, maybe skills as a trial lawyer, maybe street smarts, which I do have – something that allowed him to make that gutsy move, and it worked out for the firm and it certainly worked out for me in a big way,” Coffinas said.

The firm, founded more than 80 years ago, maintains offices in Manhattan, Garden City, and Cutchogue, NY, and one in New Jersey.

BREAST CANCER MISDIAGNOSIS EPIDEMIC

“There’s a subspecialty within the field of medical malpractice where I do a lot of work which is an important topic for every woman, and that has to do with cases concerning breast cancer,” said Coffinas. “The delay in diagnosing breast cancer is almost as big an epidemic as the disease itself.”

Coffinas noted many women on whom a lump is found are often dismissed because they are either young or have no risk factors for breast cancer, only to come back six months or a year later with a more aggressive, farther advanced cancer.

Another problem, she said, is misinterpretation of x-rays or sonograms. This can occur when a radiology practice operates like “a mill,” in which patients’ films are read by a staff radiologist under pressure to constantly and quickly read and interpret them in an assembly-line fashion. In some cases patients are not called back when they should be. As a result, their diagnoses and treatments are delayed, and the patients are deprived of the benefits of early cancer detection, thus diminishing the chances of better treatment.

“When the films are not read correctly and the patients are diagnosed six months, eight months, ten months, a year, a year and a half later, cancer does what it wants to do,” said Coffinas. “And very simply, it wants to grow. It wants to spread. It wants to kill.”

Coffinas describes the cancer misdiagnosis cases something that juries can understand “viscerally and inherently, as patients.”

“They understand the concept of ‘there’s this thing in me, part of my body has turned on me,’ there are these cells that are multiplying and spreading every day, and a day will come when, if it spreads and goes to some distant organ as breast cancer likes to do, that’s a death sentence,” she said. “So jurors can understand the philosophy behind it: ‘Wow, you give that cancer one extra minute, you’re taking away that one extra minute of hope to the patient.’”

Patients themselves can reduce the risk of malpractice, said Coffinas, by taking charge of their own healthcare and challenging the truism of “no news is good news.”

“I’ve seen way too many cases where no news is bad news,” she said, such as a radiology practice losing track of patients who need follow-up, resulting in treatment being delayed by months or years. “If you’ve had a test, it’s your responsibility to call up and get the results. You can stop some trouble by just being proactive.”

For someone living with cancer, winning a lawsuit can boost their morale and spirit at a time when they need it the most, Coffinas explained.

“It just helps them fight the fight. They feel some justice and it gives them hope and a little bit more courage to go on,” she said.

By reducing financial stress, the money can lower other types of stress as well, especially if people are too ill to work.

“You get some financial freedom so you can breathe,” said Coffinas. “‘I can take care of my kids. I can pay off my house.’ Whatever it is, that freedom lessens the stress, and I believe helps them fight this disease, because with the physical agony of these diseases comes the mental agony, and if we can relieve some of that mental stress, it’s helpful. I’ve seen it.”

LABOR AND DELIVERY COMPLICATIONS

Coffinas’ firm handles cases involving improper care of mothers and newborns during labor and after delivery. Fetal monitoring strips are the standard devices used to keep track of the infant during labor. The strips give crucial information about the baby’s condition, including whether it is in a “hostile uterine environment” or at risk of neurological damage if not delivered in time by Caesarian section.

“The problem goes on most of the time when the woman doesn’t have her own private doctor, when she is what’s known as a ‘service patient,’ a patient of the hospital,” Coffinas said. “Then she’s given the doctor there, or the resident there who doesn’t have enough experience, and the hospital is too busy, and nobody’s looking at the strips as much as they should.”

One notable exception to this was a client Coffinas had from 1998 to 2007. Carolyn Sokolnicki went from her home in New Jersey to Staten Island University Hospital to give birth to her daughter, Noelle, so she could be cared for by her own doctor. Noelle’s birth came with no complications, Sokolnicki said, during the week before Thanksgiving 1997. But three days later, a series of tragic events led to a bilateral brain hemorrhage, which caused Noelle permanent brain damage. Now 16, Noelle lives with cerebral palsy, severe spasticity (muscle tightness with involuntary spasms) and no control of her body from the neck down except for her right arm. She is permanently in a wheelchair. Her brain functions at a level of between two and eight years old. She can speak with some clarity. She is legally blind.

Sokolnicki explained when Noelle was three days old, the hospital staff improperly suctioned, or pumped, Noelle’s stomach. This caused her to go into cardiac respiratory arrest. When she was resuscitated, her brain hemorrhaged bilaterally (on both sides). In addition to the permanent brain damage, this formed scar tissue in her brain, which blocked the natural flow of liquid. The water build-up in her brain caused it to swell, and her optic nerve was crushed.

Sokolnicki said a nurse on duty had decided to suction, which she had no authority to do.

“We’re not medical people; we agreed to everything they were saying. Had I known what the outcome was going to be, I would have grabbed my baby and run home,” said Sokolnicki.

Sokolnicki and her husband were told to leave the room while the baby was suctioned. She remembers bending down to pick up her purse to leave. By the time she was upright, the baby had already been suctioned – incorrectly – and gone into cardiac and respiratory arrest.

“I looked at the nurse, and at that moment I knew that if she could have traded places with my daughter, she would have,” she said. “I saw it in her face.”

Sokolnicki and her husband first visited a Staten Island attorney, who upon reviewing the medical records realized they needed a larger firm. He called on Robert Sullivan, Coffinas’ boss.

“Thank God for Eleni, because I’ll never forget her. For the rest of my life I will be eternally grateful, because she fought for us,” Sokolnicki said. “It always goes through your mind that nobody’s going to believe you that this happened. And she believed in us, and she fought, and Noelle got a settlement (in 2007), and she’s well taken care of.”

Sokolnicki’s husband passed away in 2011. Noelle has a brother ten years older than she; their mother describes the two siblings as extremely close. He lives with them and helps out as often as he is able.

“The best way I can describe it is, if I was alone here (at home) with her and I died, she couldn’t even get herself a glass of water,” Sokolnicki said. “She could say ‘I need something to drink,’ but there would be nobody there to get it for her.”

Still, she describes Noelle as a happy and even a funny little girl with a good sense of humor. The settlement Coffinas got for them provides for all the child’s physical and medical needs.

“I don’t know what I would do without that money. I don’t think I would be able to care for my daughter at home. And I don’t think she would be doing as well if she wasn’t home. I know I wouldn’t be. She’s my baby, and Eleni made it possible for us to stay together. We owe Eleni and her firm a lot – first of all for believing in us and fighting for her. I wrote it in a Christmas card to her, ‘I don’t know if you truly realize what you’ve meant to the families you’ve touched.’ Because of her, Noelle’s life is enjoyable.”

Coffinas described situations like Noelle’s as “raw heartache.”

“With them, when you get money, you’re definitely helping the family, but you can’t make that brain come back,” she said. “I get letters, years later, from the parents who say how much the money has helped them get their kids special services and make their lives easier. And that’s rewarding.”

PREPARING THE CASE

Despite the prevalent television and Internet advertisements for personal injury lawyers, many of whom entice clients with cash reward possibilities, malpractice cases are very costly to do right, said Coffinas. Acquiring the medical records, having them independently reviewed by impartial, expert physicians, and filing litigation with the courts are all out-of-pocket expenses, so it is not cost-effective for the firm to take a case Coffinas is not certain she can prove.

“The process is long, it’s time-consuming, it’s very expensive. So I’m not going to take a case that’s going to waste anybody’s time or money. I’m going to take a case where my firm has the resources to spend the money to do it the right way, and get the best results possible,” she said.

Before a medical malpractice suit can be filed, New York State law requires an affidavit of merit, which can be either written or verbal confirmation from a physician who believes malpractice has occurred, Coffinas said. Obviously, most poor health results are not caused by malpractice. Often, however, a trained medical expert must examine the records to determine that.

The theatrical image of plaintiffs winning vast fortunes from implacable defendants is usually just that – theater, said Coffinas. Virtually all cases are settled between the parties, she noted, even if they go to trial first.

“Whenever you see those astronomical-type numbers, they are always appealed – they go to a higher court – and there are judges in that higher court that look at the case, look at the injuries, and decide whether or not the verdict was excessive,” she said. Some cases will settle after the verdict at the defendant’s request. “They know ‘It’s okay if you don’t want to pay us; we’re ready and willing and able to try it.’ That’s part of the benefit of a firm like mine that has the lawyers and the reputation that we have.”

LECTURES

Coffinas regularly lectures on trial law and medical malpractice for various groups, including the New York State Trial Lawyers Association, where she serves on the board of directors, New York State’s Continuing Legal Education program, where she is a dean, and other bar associations. There is no payment to lecture for lawyers – it is done all on her own time.

“I lecture on all aspects of trial practice. I’m largely asked to lecture on medical malpractice, but I really am a trial lawyer at heart, meaning any kind of case,” she said. “I like looking at the younger faces in the audience and remembering what that was like. It’s fun.”

When asked what she enjoys most about her job, Coffinas did not hesitate.

“The trial,” she said, adding, “And the spirit of the people. People always ask me, ‘Does it get depressing?’ because I’m looking at people that have been given a death sentence, with clients who are in stage 4 cancer, which on the books, offers no cure. And the people know that. Logically, they understand it. But they never accept it, and I give them credit for not accepting it. Each day they live, they’re winning.

“I’ve seen so many people like this – different ages, different races, all kinds of different people – who have this great spirit we don’t always tap into, because in our day-to-day life we don’t have to. But these people, in order to survive, have to really tap into that spirit and say, ‘Today I’m alive, so I’m beating this cancer.’ And the next day they’re alive, they’re beating it as well. Wherever those cancer cells end up, it never hits their spirit. I’ve never seen or had a client who just wanted to give up. And one of the first questions I ask them is ‘We’ve heard that expression “breast cancer survivor.” What does that mean to you?’ They always tell me ‘It means me. I am a survivor.’

“I’m really always motivated and inspired by the strength of the people who are fighting a fight that on the books they know they’re supposed to lose, and they fight until the end. They stay strong, and that to me is the rewarding part of the job.”

JUDGE COFFINAS’ LEGACY

Shortly after her father passed away in 2006 at age 88, Coffinas and her family celebrated the county renaming a portion of Schermerhorn Street Honorable Nicholas Coffinas Way in his honor. It is the block where Sts. Constantine and Helen Greek Orthodox Church stands, where the judge and all three of his children were baptized. The judge and his younger brother Gus, 90, who both served as presidents of the church’s parish council, had a hand in founding the A. Fantis parochial school, opened in September 1963.

Gus Coffinas relates a moving story about a man he met at his brother’s wake, the janitor who cleaned the judge’s chambers each night.

“He’s crying as he’s shaking my hand, tears are falling from his eyes to my hand. He said, ‘One day I went to clean his chambers, and he was there, late. He told me to open his closet (my brother always had a bottle of Scotch there). And he said to take two glasses. And he sat me down. Here I am, a janitor, and your brother’s a Supreme Court Judge, and he has me there a half hour, we have a drink, and talking like two gentlemen. Only your brother would do things like that.’ Of all the accolades I heard about him, the sincerest one was that one.”

Judge Marsha Steinhardt of Kings County Supreme Court, who has practiced for more than 40 years, remembers Judge Nicholas Coffinas as her mentor.

“Everybody knew Nick and loved him, and I was just fortunate to have what I considered to be this special rapport with him,” she said.

Steinhardt called Coffinas “one of the best attorneys I’ve ever seen.”

“She’s just so prepared and so smart and so articulate and so able to relate to the jurors. There’s nothing lofty about Eleni. She’s very down-to-earth and she doesn’t speak in medical terms. She’ll just say, ‘Isn’t it true that the plaintiff was black and blue’ instead of using some medical term for it. So the jury gets it, and they know what she’s talking about.”

With her husband, immigration attorney Michael DiRaimondo, Coffinas adopted a baby girl from China and named her Nicole in honor of her father, who knew the child was coming but passed away before she arrived.

“I want to continue on and mold her so she can be independent and find her passion, and understand that she can get married, she can have babies, and she can pursue another passion at the same time,” Coffinas said. “That’s really is my goal.”