Lifelong learner: Former deputy sheriff now serves as WAJ president

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By Sheila Pursglove
Legal News

An Oakland County Deputy Sheriff for over 12 years, Chad Engelhardt initially saw law school as a means to further his law enforcement career.

“Having started working early, I planned on retiring from law enforcement at a fairly young age and was planning a second career as a criminal justice professor,” he says.

But life had other plans for this University of Michigan alumnus, who earned his J.D. magna cum laude from WMU-Cooley Law School in Lansing, with a flexible program that allowed him to continue working full-time and attend law school year-round and complete his degree in the usual three-year time span.

“I found the professors to be excellent educators with a focus on a practical legal education,” he says. “A wonderful professor, now a dean, Joan Vestrand, encouraged me to look into a career in litigation — I’m very thankful for her.”

Engelhardt started his legal career defending police misconduct cases, often involving accusations of excessive force.

“Given that I’d been trained as a police use-of-force instructor, it was a natural way to parlay my law enforcement background as an attorney. I enjoyed protecting the legal rights of those who protect our community,” he says. “My father-in-law, attorney David Christensen, has been a significant influence, showing me the real importance of the jury system and the tort system’s role as the true safe keeper of the community.”

 Engelhardt now is a partner at Goethel Engelhardt, PLLC in Ann Arbor, where he represents injured clients against insurance companies, hospitals and big companies and focuses his practice on the prosecution of complex medical malpractice, catastrophic injury and wrongful death claims.

“It all came together for me when I had the opportunity to join Steve Goethel, one of Michigan’s best trial lawyers, in practice. I jumped at it,” he says. “Steve’s practice is highly selective and focused on complex litigation arising from catastrophic injuries, often from the negligence of doctors and hospitals. Our clients have suffered catastrophic injuries or the loss of a loved one. Fighting for them in the civil justice system allows us to achieve recoveries that can make a real difference in the quality of life they are able to lead in the face of tragedy, and oftentimes allows them to obtain the future medical care and other resources they need to survive.

“I’ve also enjoyed learning the unique aspects of medicine that go along with each case, and modern technology has made that much easier.”

With a father who was a physician and a mother who was a clinical psychologist, Engelhardt had to overcome an ingrained cultural bias against medical malpractice cases.

“Like many others, I wasn’t aware that medical malpractice has become the third leading cause of death in our country. I didn’t understand that profit-based shortcuts create unnecessary risk, or that many needless deaths and injuries are caused by either systemic failures in hospitals or dangerous repeat offender doctors,” he says.

“I also didn’t understand the uphill battle patients face as the result of legislative and activist judge-made laws that give unfair cover to dangerous doctors and their insurance companies. These were lessons that were quickly learned.

“It may surprise some people that part of the reason I prosecute cases against negligent doctors is the respect and admiration I have for their profession,” he adds. “My family members and other loved ones have had their lives saved by skilled, caring doctors. For example, my father had a major stroke and his life was saved by the quick action of his medical colleagues. Other doctors and professionals have helped him largely regain his ability to speak, and even have the use of one of his hands.”

Engelhardt notes that, as important as the jury system is, some of the most meaningful cases have been ones that never made it to the courthouse.

“We’ve worked collaboratively with hospitals, most often the University of Michigan’s Office of Clinical Safety, to investigate and resolve cases,” he explains. “Significantly, by identifying the root cause of preventable medical errors, we’ve been able to work together to come up with solutions, and my clients have been able to participate in the various aspects of provider education and program implementation. Oftentimes, we find that communication errors are at the root of medical errors, and the University has voluntarily instituted several improvements based on input from our clients.

“This is a truly remarkable way to approach medical malpractice issues, and results in safer medicine for our entire community. The United States would be well served if this model of transparency and collaborative practice was implemented on a large scale compared to the traditional ‘deny and defend’ model.”

In recent years, the firm also has increased its focus on investigating and prosecuting large truck crash cases. These have many common issues with medical malpractice, Engelhardt notes, such as tracking down the systemic root cause of problems, rather than focusing on the immediate human error.

“It’s been our experience that often the real cause of a crash took place months before and miles away from the scene, in the dangerous decisions being made by trucking companies looking to maximize profits and competitive advantage over public safety,” he says.

One memorable case for the firm was a wrongful death medical malpractice claim on behalf of the family of a child with Down syndrome who died in the hospital and a nurse altered the medical records to try to cover-up her misdeeds. Engelhardt and Goethel produced a video of what happened, how medical neglect killed the child and how the tragedy devastated the family. The case resulted in a 7-figure recovery for the family — and the hospital uses the video as part of its nurse and house officer orientation programs to teach about the impact of preventable medical errors.

Engelhardt’s previous career still plays a large role in his work.

“The lessons and skills I learned in law enforcement are at the cornerstone of what I do daily — from dealing with people in crisis to conducting comprehensive investigations in pursuit of justice for clients, the ability to interact with people of diverse backgrounds and to sort through large amounts of sometimes conflicting data remains a core,” he says.

“Another important lesson I learned in law enforcement is the critical importance of a team-based approach to problem solving. I work with an excellent team of lawyers and paralegals, each playing to the strengths of the others.”

After law school graduation, Engelhardt was given the gift of Michigan Association for Justice (MAJ) membership by his father-in-law, attorney David E. Christensen, and has been a member ever since, serving on the Executive Board and co-chairing the New Lawyers Committee.

He also is the new president of the Washtenaw Association for Justice. “My primary goal is to help preserve the wisdom and institutional knowledge of the leaders that have come before us,” he says.
“I’ve proposed establishing a board of directors to help make important decisions and guide the organization. I’d also like to work with other local bar associations to develop a series of seminars on trial skills to help lawyers of all levels.” 

Engelhardt returned to his alma mater to become an award winning adjunct professor and clinical field supervisor, and also is very involved in Cooley’s community and student outreach and charitable programs.

His experience as an educator includes teaching public safety classes to high school students during his law enforcement years, and passing along his experience to a new generation of police officers as a field-training officer. More commonly he is now a CLE lecturer on medical negligence and litigation issues. “I consider myself a lifelong student of the law and the craft of trial practice. At the same time, I’ve found joy in teaching all my adult life,” he says.

“But of all the teaching I’ve done, by far the most enjoyable has been teaching litigation and medical malpractice courses at WMU-Cooley. My work with Cooley students has taught me the true meaning of the Latin proverb docendo discimus — ‘by teaching, we learn.’ Much of what we do boils down to the fundamentals. Teaching the basics of an increasingly complex body of law helps keep me current and focused. Law students also come up with some incredibly creative questions and solutions to issues.”

Engelhardt notes that one of his best professional decisions also happens to have been a great personal decision. Three years ago and after a dozen years as a successful malpractice defense attorney, his wife Jennifer decided to represent injured patients and joined the practice.

“Working side-by-side with her and Steve, we really complement each other,” Engelhardt says. “Jennifer is by far the best legal writer among us and can process huge amounts of complex medical data in remarkable time. I just need to keep her supplied with a constant cup of Starbucks dark roast coffee. Coordinating busy schedules with married lawyers is never easy, but Jennifer makes sure we keep a more balanced home/work life.”

Engelhardt also volunteers in his spare time at hospitals and nursing homes as a certified therapy dog handler, accompanied by his K9 partner, Gracie, a 2-year-old Yellow Labrador. His experience with therapy dogs began after his mother’s unexpected death from a stroke, and the hospital brought in a pair of therapy dogs to help the family cope with their unexpected loss.

“At the time, I tended to keep my emotions buried. I experienced firsthand how a trained therapy dog can help a person to cathartically emote and bring a sense of peace to a hectic situation,”’ he says.

Gracie is not only a K9 partner in Engelhardt’s volunteer work but also accompanies him and his wife to work most days, where Gracie has a bed under his desk, but often wanders the office in search of affection and the occasional treat.

“Gracie has been a loving, peaceful and reassuring presence for many injured people,” he says.  “At the same time, my work as a K9 handler has been emotionally rewarding for me as well.  Especially on days filled with the conflict sometimes inherent to high stakes litigation, taking time to share a moment of connection and kindness with someone in need centers me.”

In his leisure time, the Ann Arbor resident enjoys bicycling and cooking, including catering charity dinner parties to benefit brain-injured children. 

“While our practice is statewide and nationwide, having a base in Ann Arbor allows us to be close to home, and to enjoy the world-class education, culture and dining our city offers,” he says.

“One of the major quality of life factors for me is living less than a mile away from the office, so my commute is a nice walk home after work. Our youngest daughter goes to school just a couple blocks from our office. Being able to leave work for a couple hours to join her on field trips and attend school events is a real treasure for me.”

 

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