A federal jury Tuesday rejected a lawsuit by a professional tennis umpire who claimed a Los Angeles County coroner’s office doctor recklessly classified her husband’s death as a homicide, causing the woman to be falsely accused of murder.
Lois Goodman, 76, of Woodland Hills, claimed in her $10 million suit that she was deprived of her civil rights by Deputy Medical Examiner Dr. Yulai Wang, but the federal jury determined Wang did not falsify the death certificate.
The eight-member jury deliberated for about six hours in downtown Los Angeles before reaching a unanimous decision, answering only the first question on the verdict form: “Was the autopsy report prepared by Dr. Wang falsified?” The answer of “no” made the remaining questions of liability and damages unnecessary.
“I’m relieved,” Wang said outside court. “There was no evidence of falsification. Medical examiners should be able to do their job without the threat of a lawsuit — and I hope others (in the profession) see that.”
Goodman alleged that she suffered pain, trauma and loss of work and reputation as a result of what she said was Wang’s “shoddy” work and “faulty” ruling that the manner of her husband’s death was homicide rather than accidental.
Wang’s attorney argued during the seven-day trial that the doctor was simply following the evidence when making his decision and was not required to justify or explain his conclusions.
Jurors declined comment as they left the courthouse. Robert M. Sheahen, one of Goodman’s attorneys, said the case would be appealed for a second time to the U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals.
Goodman initially sued the Los Angeles Police Department and the lead detectives on the case, along with the office of the medical examiner and Wang. A federal judge threw out that lawsuit, but the appeals court reinstated the allegations against Wang.
“We’re going to fight this to restore Mrs. Goodman’s reputation,” Sheahen said.
Goodman’s lawyers had argued that Goodman deserved a $10 million payout for an ordeal that included her on-camera arrest, a stay at New York’s notorious Rikers Island, food poisoning from jail food and the end of her prominence as an in-demand tennis referee — all the result of what they termed Wang’s “faulty” ruling of homicide.
“Let me be abundantly clear — Mrs. Goodman didn’t kill anybody,” Sheahen told the panel during closing arguments. “The charge is preposterous.”
Wang’s attorney, Rickey Ivie, countered that the doctor was only doing his job by correctly identifying the manner of Alan Goodman’s death, not the perpetrator. Ivie added that the deputy coroner was not under any pressure to declare the death a homicide.
“His job is to state an opinion and that’s what he did in this case,” Ivie told the panel, adding that other doctors who examined the autopsy results supported the homicide classification.
According to her suit, Goodman has suffered ongoing trauma since being wrongly accused of murdering her 80-year-old husband, Alan, six years ago at their Woodland Hills home. Goodman was arrested in New York in August 2012 on the eve of a U.S. Open tournament while wearing her referee uniform. Police initially claimed she bludgeoned her husband to death with a coffee mug, and then stabbed him with the broken pieces.
The Los Angeles County District Attorney’s Office dropped the murder case in December 2012 after Goodman passed a lie detector test and experts retained by prosecutors reviewed the autopsy report and concluded the death was an accident.
Along with millions in damages, Goodman sought to have the coroner revise the ruling on the death certificate. Goodman has contended that her husband, who was legally blind, tripped and fell down some stairs and landed on the coffee mug, while Goodman was away from home. He managed to go back upstairs, where he crawled into bed and died.
Sheahen had alleged that during the 3 1/2 months before Wang issued his report, police were pressuring the doctor to classify the death as homicide rather than undetermined or accidental.
Ivie told the jury that his client’s conclusion was entirely based on his interpretation of Alan Goodman’s injuries, described as “multiple sharp-force injuries.”
The defense attorney said there was nothing “malicious” or bogus about the report.
“He just did his job and made a neutral decision about the manner of death,” Ivie said. “That’s all he was supposed to do. Dr. Wang has nothing to gain by seeing Mrs. Goodman prosecuted.”
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