Attorney's specialty started at peak of 'malpractice crisis'

 By Sheila Pursglove

Legal News 
In the mid to late ‘70s, medical malpractice litigation was in a growth phase. 
“Physicians were calling it a ‘malpractice crisis,’” says attorney Bruce Vande Vusse from Foster, Swift, Collins & Smith.
During his final year of law school in 1977, Vande Vusse clerked at a downtown Detroit firm where medical malpractice was a significant part of the business. 
“I started doing the work they had to give me – and it turned out I liked it,” he says. 
He started trying cases alone as a second year associate – and in his first trial represented one of the top hand surgeons in metro Detroit. 
“I’m sure he looked at me and wondered where they found such a young and inexperienced greenhorn to be his trial lawyer – but we won and I’m still going to medical trials 35 years later,” he says.
Vice president of Foster Swift’s southeast Michigan office in Farmington Hills, and a member of the firm’s Executive Committee, Vande Vusse handles litigation in defense of health care providers, including hospitals, their affiliates, physicians, nurses and other providers and has handled and tried birth trauma cases, neurologic injury cases, wrongful death and nursing practice matters.
“What’s really enjoyable about medical litigation is to learn about different kinds of medical conditions and treatment without formal medical education, to argue and contest how physicians, hospitals and other health care providers should do their jobs, to deal with very sophisticated opponents for high stakes and to be able to persuade jurors to make decisions in your clients’ favor,” he says. “I think the caliber of the litigation skills possessed by the medical malpractice bar, both plaintiff and defense, is second to none. Even today, when there are dramatically fewer cases filed, my impression is that more medical malpractice cases get tried to a conclusion than most other kinds of civil cases.”
In a 7-week wrongful death trial in Midland, seven lawyers couldn’t fit in any courtroom, so a temporary courtroom was set up in a local township fire hall. 
“It was a great trial with so many contrasting strategies and styles,” he recalls. “Other than winning the trial, the best experience of that case was taking eight depositions in Madrid, Spain.”
Other 7-week trials include two birth trauma cases against well-known plaintiff attorney Geoffrey Fieger. 
“Geoff has a well-earned reputation and is an enormous presence in any courtroom,” Vande Vusse says. “Everybody knows the stakes in this type of case are extreme. Geoff and I are 1-1 and waiting for a rubber match.” 
According to Vande Vusse, the significant drop in the number of these cases being pursued is a result of a number of factors including changes in the law as a result of tort reform, inherent complexity and a long learning curve, and increasing demands for more and varied kinds of expert testimony to support necessary proofs – all of which raise the expense of litigating. 
“That said, it’s really interesting and satisfying work with a lot of potential trial experience, and I’ve had no regrets practicing in that niche of law for 36 years.”
Vande Vusse joined Foster Swift in 2002, his third firm in a career spanning 36 years. 
“It’s a very collegial place, respectful of its history, legacy and place in its communities and with great lawyers,” he says.
Because of the firm’s size and varied clientele, opportunities have opened up lately to do more commercial-oriented kinds of litigation than he has ever done before. 
“After you’ve considered yourself a ‘medical malpractice lawyer’ for more than three decades, you realize your real skill set is the ability to dissect complicated fact scenarios, to organize and tell your client’s story in a persuasive manner and to enjoy the competition that trials represent,” he says. “I’ve been fortunate to have consistently interesting work throughout my career, and had clients and tried cases all over the metro area and Michigan’s Lower Peninsula. I’ve enjoyed the sheer diversity of people I’ve come into contact with, represented and watched.” 
The first and only attorney in his family, Vande Vusse was a political science major at Calvin College in Grand Rapids, where he liked the structure and organization the law provided to society. 
“I had really enjoyed a constitutional law class as an undergrad,” he says. “Law school seemed like a good idea at the time and the passage of time has only reinforced that impression.”
Attending the University of Detroit Mercy School of Law meant a move from his native western Michigan to the big city of Detroit. 
“My perspective changed suddenly – I had to interact with people from backgrounds and perspectives very different from mine, requiring a lot of rapid growing up.”
His biggest eye-opener occurred in his first month in law school, when he got a part-time job at the Release on Recognizance office at Recorders Court, interviewing prisoners in the Wayne County Jail every day, attempting to get them out on personal bonds. 
“That was a totally different slice of society than I’d ever experienced,” he says. “Interacting with that clientele was very ‘educational’ for a relatively sheltered kid from Kalamazoo.”
Vande Vusse served as a Trustee at Children’s Home of Detroit for 9 years, the last 18 months as President of the Board. 
“Unfortunately, I had to preside over CHD’s closure as an agency in late 2008, after 172 years of service,” he says. “At the time, CHD had been an agency longer than Michigan had been a state. That was a really difficult and painful experience.”
Starr Commonwealth took over the assets of CHD and Vande Vusse has been on its board since 2009, currently serving on Starr's executive committee and as chairman of the audit committee.  
“The rewards of working with these two agencies are made clear when you talk to the kids who are in your programs, many of whom have come from appalling situations,” he says. “Our programs make an impact in their young lives, helping set them on a straighter path than they were on before they arrived. The human service industry has had a really tough struggle for the last 15 years, with enormous budget pressures leading to many agencies closing after long runs. I’ve worked with lots of really dedicated and caring people at both places and for that I feel grateful and privileged.” 
Vande Vusse and his wife, a kindergarten teacher in the Grosse Pointe Public Schools, have enjoyed a marriage of 40 years, and raised two sons and two daughters. The couple has lived on the east side of the metro area (the Pointes) for 35 years. 
“The best thing about living on the east side is Lake St. Clair. I’ve owned and kept a sailboat there for 30 years,” he says. “There’s no question – it’s the best toy I ever bought. All of my kids were raised on that boat and I’ve done lots of racing with my two sons and my best friends. I’ll be doing my first ocean race in June, when we’re trucking the boat to Rhode Island and sailing in the 730-mile Newport to Bermuda race on June 20. Then shortly after in July, I’ll do my 29th Port Huron to Mackinac race.”

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