An O.C. lawyer won a personal-injury case. Then came the celebration video, and an apology

Robert L. McKenna III, a medical malpractice attorney, was telling an Orange County jury how utterly meritless, insulting and outrageous was the case against his client, a gastroenterologist. The plaintiffs’ demand for $10 million for the death of their father, a 49-year-old forklift operator, amounted to nothing less than “extortion,” he said.

“I take pride in what I do, and I’ve got to tell you, in the 30 years I have been doing this, I have never seen a more insulting, factually devoid presentation in my entire career,” the Huntington Beach attorney insisted at the trial in April.

McKenna told jurors to disregard the death certificate, which blamed the death on sepsis and peritonitis due to a colon perforated by a feeding tube, which his client had inserted. He pointed to failures by other hospital staff, and argued that the patient died from other causes. This, he argued, was a cash grab.

“Welcome to America. Welcome to the personal-injury machine, the personal-injury industrial complex,” he told jurors, who swiftly returned with a 12-0 verdict for his client.

But McKenna summarized the case with decidedly different language when he and colleagues gathered at the office amid balloons in May to celebrate recent victories.

The case involved “a guy that was probably negligently killed, but we kind of made it look like other people did it,” McKenna said. “And we actually had a death certificate that said he died the very way the plaintiff said he died and we had to say, ‘No, you really shouldn’t believe what that death certificate says, or the coroner from the Orange County coroner’s office.'”

McKenna was not done.

“Overcoming all of those hurdles, we managed to sock three lawyers in the face,” he said, referring to three plaintiffs’ attorneys. It was the fastest defense verdict he had ever won, he said, inviting the legal partner who had tried the case with him to ring a victory bell.

McKenna’s speech was recorded on video and posted to his firm’s social media page, but quickly removed. Nevertheless, it is now in wide circulation, with furious backlash from the legal community.

“In my opinion, this is one of the reasons people tend to distrust and even hate lawyers,” said Jorge Ledezma, the lead attorney representing the plaintiffs in the feeding-tube case. “They will say one thing to the jury or in public, and then say the opposite in private.”

In the video, he said, McKenna is essentially “admitting to tricking the jury,” adding: “This would be the equivalent of Johnnie Cochran saying, ‘I know O.J. did it, but we got him off anyway.’”

In a statement to The Times, McKenna said his remarks on the video, which he did not know would be recorded and posted, were “intended purely as an internal briefing to our staff, using shorthand phrases which might understandably cause confusion for a lay audience unfamiliar with the case at hand, and the law in general.”

McKenna described his remarks to his staff as “ineloquent” and “imprecise,” and said he understood why people outside the office “might take offense.”

“I have expressed my apologies to my client, opposing counsel, and both the medical and legal communities,” McKenna said. “However, nothing about my remarks should call into question our very transparent trial strategy or the jury’s verdict in favor of my client.”

The case centered on the treatment of Enrique Garcia Sanchez, who worked as a radio host in San Salvador before coming to the United States in the early 2000s. He settled in Santa Ana with his two daughters, working in a bike shop and later as a forklift driver.

“He would walk us to school and take us everywhere,” said his eldest daughter, Johanna Garcia, 27. “He was a really proud dad.”

On Nov. 5, 2017, he arrived at South Coast Global Medical Center in Santa Ana with severe abdominal pain. His mother had recently died, his family said, and he had been depressed and drinking. He was diagnosed with alcohol-related pancreatitis and struggled for a month, ultimately losing his ability to swallow.

Dr. Essam Quraishi, the gastroenterologist, inserted the feeding tube in Sanchez’s abdomen in early December. According to the lawsuit filed by Sanchez’s family, the tube pierced the colon, infecting his body and killing him later that month at UC Irvine Medical Center in Orange.

“He fought to be alive. He fought through the pain to be with us because that’s pretty much what he had — us,” Johanna Garcia said. “To be there sitting next to him until his last breath, give him a last hug and seconds later he’s cold and stiff, it’s traumatizing.”

Garcia said she was turned down by four lawyers before Ledezma, a Santa Ana attorney, agreed to take the case.

“I thought it was one of the most meritorious medical malpractice cases that I’ve ever seen,” Ledezma said. “The evidence is so convincing, so black and white.

“It was the coroner’s office that said he died as a result of a badly placed PEG tube,” Ledezma said, referring to the feeding tube. “To me, the story was very compelling, and I thought, even in a very conservative area like Orange County, the story would be received.”

Ledezma argued that Quraishi had relied on an X-ray that mistakenly showed the tube was properly placed in the stomach, but that he should have ordered a more detailed CT scan.

McKenna, the doctor’s attorney, is a founding partner at the law firm of Kjar, McKenna & Stockalper, with offices in El Segundo and Huntington Beach. The firm’s website boasts that the partners were named “Super Lawyers” by Los Angeles Magazine.

In Quraishi’s defense, McKenna pointed to a UC Irvine Medical Center surgeon who had treated Sanchez and believed he did not have peritonitis.

“This house of cards that they have built that this man somehow got peritonitis and sepsis and died does not stand the test of scrutiny, and it makes no sense,” McKenna told jurors.

McKenna said that Sanchez “had a catastrophic injury that ate most of his pancreas,” adding: “That is not a survivable event.”

Referring to the plaintiffs’ lawyers, McKenna said that “Mr. Jorge and his team” were part of the “personal-injury industrial complex.”

Experts hired by McKenna’s team said there was no negligence in Sanchez’s death. But the attorney also argued that hospital staff failed to relay key information from a radiology report to Quraishi.

“Dr. Quraishi wanted accountability and wanted his day in court and did not want to get denied that by the extortion from the other side,” he said.

Sanchez’s family asked for $10 million in closing arguments in Orange County Superior Court Judge James Crandall’s courtroom.

When McKenna’s celebratory remarks appeared on social media — bearing the Instagram tag of one of his firm’s partners — attorneys began downloading the video immediately.

On Torthub, an Instagram page frequented by lawyers, it has been viewed more than 5,500 times. Most of the comments were critical of McKenna, some blisteringly so. “Absolutely sickening,” one commenter posted. “How is he not disbarred???”

Others defended McKenna. “They did their job. That’s what lawyers do, represent their client to the best of their ability.”

Johanna Garcia said she was in shock when she saw McKenna’s video.

“I couldn’t believe it. It was infuriating to see that,” she said. “Ringing bells, as if it wasn’t a life that was taken away.”

At the same time, she said, she felt a kind of relief. “He was admitting to himself that we were right. I feel like the truth came out, even if justice wasn’t served.”

Her family’s attorney, Ledezma, said that McKenna’s remarks had “done a lot of damage to the profession,” and said the celebration video is notable for what McKenna did not say about the case.

“He didn’t say Dr. Quraishi was a good doctor,” Ledezma said. “He didn’t say our case was without merit. He didn’t say Dr. Quraishi was the victim of a frivolous lawsuit. He also didn’t say that justice was achieved.”

Ledezma plans to appeal the verdict on the basis of what he called legal errors in the trial and on McKenna’s “inflammatory closing argument.”

“Mr. McKenna is a really good lawyer,” he said. “If his goal was to confuse the jury, he did a good job of that.”