Super Lawyers
William C. Altreuter

Thursday, September 16, 2004

No matter how big a city you practice in, or how for flung your practice is, our glamour profession is a tribe, and when one of the members of the tribe dies, the drums start beating immediately. In Buffalo we are a tight knit bar, and the word gets out pretty quickly. I'd known Carmine Tarantino was sick, but the news of his death, which went through the community with unusual speed, still surprised me. Although I'd never had a trial with him, he was an unusual fixture in our universe here in Western New York. He died young, and although he made a mark, I wonder how much of a mark he left.

On the plane the next day I read his obit, and was struck by the fact that it omitted the two things that everyone knew about him. Carm was a medical malpractice defense attorney. If he ever did anything else, I never heard about it. Med mal defense is a tough row to hoe. Despite what you hear, most medical malpractice cases that make it to trial have some merit-- they are expensive cases to mount, and the plaintiff's bar screens out the rubbish pretty effectively. By the time a med mal case gets to trial it has passed the scrutiny of the lawyer who took it in, an expert in the field who thinks he can take the stand and testify, and a judge, who has denied summary judgement. If you are a trial lawyer defending a case like that, you have to be pretty confident in your case-- and unbelievably confident in your ability to sell your case. There are no small med mal cases-- because they are so expensive to prosecute, the plaintiffs' bar really only take on the big ones-- and, lets face it, when doctors screw up, the results can be pretty bad. Carmine Tarantino was the kind of defense lawyer who'd charge hell with a bucket of gasoline, and he had a record of success that was unearthly.

I don't know how long "The Streak" was, but for years Carm was involved in just about every heavy med mal case in Western New York-- and he never took an adverse verdict. Sometimes the case would settle, but he no-caused more cases than anyone I have ever heard of. "The Streak" began to take on a life of its own, but it never became larger to him than his client's case. Med mal is outside of what I do, and somehow he was not involved in the big med mal/products case that we started our practice with, but I've read a lot of his transcripts over the years, and I've heard a lot of the stories, and I know from these things that he was one of those trial lawyers who would stop at nothing to get whatever advantage he could. Some of the transcripts I've read make it pretty clear that he was entirely capable of being an unbelievable jerk-- but he was doing it to keep his adversary from exploiting a perceived weakness, or a perceived strength. He was being a jerk because he was a believer. That's a quality in a defense lawyer-- or a plaintiff's lawyer-- that can sometimes lead to crossing lines, but can also be difficult to criticize. He was a believer, but his ego didn't get in the way, and that is, I think, something important to remember about him.

I was struck, reading the obit, that this was a man who was well known in our tribe for his combative style, and his streak, but that these things were really not captured at all. He was an important figure in our community-- if Carmine Tarantino was on the case, it changed the entire calculation-- but this fact, something that was achieved by hard work, every day, over a long career, is not really what comes across in the public notice of his death. Within our tribe there will be stories that are told about Carmine Tarantino, but the ripples that his death creates will not carry far outside our circle.

He was a bird watcher, and his survivors think that this was something as important about him as what he did as a lawyer. Indeed, for them, his ornithological pursuits defined him more, or better than his stature as a kind of a legend in our local trial bar.

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