'My clients don't have eight weeks!' Lawyer concerned with cancer cases after NYS cuts 46 judges

Berkeley Brean
Created: October 07, 2020 06:21 PM

ROCHESTER, N.Y. (WHEC) — A decision to remove four dozen judges in New York State at the end of the year has the potential to impact cancer patients who are suing for money before they die.

News10NBC learned this impacts our area because one of the judges forced to leave office handles these cases exclusively. 

The judges did nothing wrong except be more than 70 years old in a COVID-19 crisis. State law says judges over 70 have to get re-certified every two years. In September, Gov. Andrew Cuomo, using executive powers, cut the court's budget by $300 million. 

As a result of that decision, the state court administration in Albany denied certification to 46 judges including New York State Supreme Court Justice John Ark.

"Oh it was no surprise," Judge Ark said outside our station Wednesday

Judge Ark and Judge James Piampiano—who handled the Charlie Tan murder case when he was a county court judge—had their re-certification denied by the state court. Their last day on the bench is Dec. 31.

"They certainly need the judges," Ark said. "But there's always budgetary concerns."

Judge Ark has the Rochester Police Accountability Board case, the Brighton Whole Foods case and just about every election-related lawsuit ends up on his docket. 

But what makes him unique is that he handles all of the cancer cases caused by asbestos. The cancer is called mesothelioma. 

Because the lifespan of patients is so short, Ark gets the cases done in a year when most lawsuits take three to four. 

There are 50 pending cases in his court right now. 

"In particular these cases are concerning because of the immediacy of the outcome of the case," he said. 

Come January, Ark's cases will get shared with other judges. 

John Comerford, Lipsitz and Ponterio law firm: "And some people might say -- oh what's a slight delay of a month of two months? My clients don't have eight weeks."

John Comerford is the lawyer for these cancer patients and their families. He's in the firm Lipsitz and Ponterio.

Many of his clients worked for Kodak, Xerox and RG&E. 

They don't sue the companies, they sue the asbestos suppliers. 

Brean: "These cases aren't just going to end, they'll go to a different judge. Won't the case just pick up with a different judge?"

John Comerford: "Well I'm afraid any judge who's got these cases she or he are going to have a very busy docket."

Comerford connected me with a former client whose father worked at Kodak for 30 years. 20 years into retirement he was diagnosed with mesothelioma. The client, who asked that I not share her name, says he father died before the lawsuit was done. She says her mother was awarded money. 

"It was certainly helpful for her to know these companies had to fork over money to her," the client said. 

When we talked about the departure of Judge Ark she said she fears the outstanding cases will "be lost in the system and half of them won't be getting justice." 

John Comerford, Lipsitz and Ponterio law firm: "I've got clients with trial dates, for example, on December 1st. We have clients with trial dates in January and February and I'm concerned that once the truck goes off the highway it's going to be really hard to get it back on again."

In a memo dated Sept. 29, the chief administrative judge in New York, Lawrence Marks, said the projected savings by eliminating 46 judges is $55 million over two years.

"This will far better help enable the court system to avoid layoffs or greatly reduce the number of layoffs should that extreme measure become unavoidable."

I spoke to Judge Craig Doran, the administrative judge for our area, the 7th judicial district. 

He said they are working on a plan on how to deal with Judge Ark's cancer cases. 

"It's going to be difficult to transition," Judge Doran said. "We are working on it now."

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