In this year of these editorials which explore problems in the medical profession, I thought that lawsuits surely should be addressed. As soon as I started to collect thoughts about lawsuits, however, I became angry. I immediately had multiple flashbacks to the two lawsuits I had to face through full court trials. Since these two lawsuits were major events in my life, and full of ancillary events which each time totally changed the direction of my life, there were multiple pictures flashing through my mind, along with a lot of grief and a lot of anger. What came out foremost, in that flood of bad memories, was the lawyer for the plaintiff, for each of those lawsuits, saying in his opening statement to the jury, “Now, this is nothing personal against this doctor, who may be in other ways a very fine doctor. It’s just about the mistakes he made in this case that cost the life of my client’s husband.” Not personal? After the first one, in which I was falsely accused of causing a death I did not cause, I lost my first marriage, partially related to the stress of that trial, and then half of everything for which I had worked during my life. After the second trail, in which I was accused of causing a death that I did not cause, I lost my second marriage, again partially related to the stress of that trial, and subsequently half of everything for which I had worked during my life up to that point. Not personal? For each of them, my stable life was totally destroyed, and I had to pick up the pieces to start all over again. It was the greed of those lawyers, and the greed of their clients, that tore my personal life to pieces on both those occasions.
I won both of those lawsuits, as a defendant, but it took every ounce of extra effort that I could muster. I already knew, when those lawsuits occurred, that I could not depend on my appointed attorney to defend me with everything in his power. I had already very painfully learned that lesson. That attorney was not going to defend me. He was going to defend primarily that insurance company that was paying him. He was going to get paid regardless of whether we won or lost. All he had to do was to show up for work, and make a reasonable effort. It was up to me to provide a presentation to the jury that was more complete and more honest than anything the suing attorney could muster. Winning a lawsuit takes a lot more than a reasonable effort. It takes maximal effort. I spent weeks reviewing all the medical records, over and over again, doing research, making charts and diagrams, instructing my attorney as to what meant what, and what responses he should make to various lines of inquiry. I dug out nursing notes, pathology reports, laboratory reports, consultant reports, pored over expert witness statements, and memorized all of that material. Then I had to organize that material in a way that was accurate, but simplified enough that the jury could understand it. I had to make it clear to that jury that I understood all the events of that case better than the plaintiff’s attorney, that I had at all times done the right thing, based on the evidence at hand, that whatever I had done was to serve that patient’s best interest, and that I deeply cared about that patient in every way. Juries do not know. They are searching for those items which ring true to them and touch their souls. If you want to win a lawsuit, you have to not only put on the best show for the jury, but have to do so with vigor, accuracy and compassion. Otherwise, you will lose to a crafty attorney.
I have not always fully defended myself against lawsuits. I have had two lawsuits that I have settled out of court. The first occurred when I was completely naïve about lawsuits and attorneys. I had worked a full day, then spent the evening taking care of emergency room calls, and finally got to bed at two AM. I was called at four AM by the emergency room, which said they had a young girl there who looked like she had appendicitis. I agreed to come in to care for her, but the next thing I knew, it was six AM. I hurried in, saw that girl, agreed that she seemed to have appendicitis, and took her to the operating room at the first available time, three hours later, to remove her appendix. Her appendix had ruptured, and she died the next day with sepsis. I was at fault. I could have claimed fatigue, but that did not meet my own moral test, and should not have met the moral test of any jury.
I soon thereafter had a painful learning experience. I found myself in a meeting where other involved physicians, the attorneys for the hospital, the attorneys for the emergency room physicians, my attorney appointed by my insurance company, and the attorneys for the plaintiff were, all twelve of them, gathered around in a circle, firing questions at me. I was the target, and they were taking deadly aim. It was a revelation that my insurance company appointed attorney was not defending me: he was defending the insurance company that had hired him. It was painfully clear that if I wanted a legal defense, I would have to hire my own personal attorney, out of my own pocket, to help me decide what was best for me. It was also painfully obvious that these huge premiums we had to pay, as physicians, for medical liability coverage, were simply a huge slush fund, for attorneys to dip into whenever they found an easy target. Since I had the entire legal contingent involved in this lawsuit either against me or lackadaisical in response, I settled out of court. Within six months, I had six additional lawsuits filed against me. Once the sharks smelled blood, an easy target, they were all gathering around for the kill. It was abundantly clear that I would have to completely defend myself in a court of law for any further lawsuits, or else my life would be a living Hell of constant lawsuit attacks.
So that is what I did. Almost immediately, when it was clear in the legal community that I would defend myself to the hilt, and when I did, would win, all the lawsuits stopped. Those few that threatened after that were soon dropped when the attorneys falsely accusing me saw that I would defend myself at any cost. The only case after that which I settled out of court occurred late in my surgical career, when the insurance premiums had skyrocketed, and I was forced to accept the attorney appointed by the insurance company. I had no additional funds to hire my own attorney to defend me. That attorney obtained an expert witness who was unwilling to testify on my behalf. I had incorrectly interpreted a laboratory report, and poorly documented the reasons for my actions, but had done no wrong, and had, in fact, done everything that was right for that patient. I had actually saved his life on one previous occasion of severe illness. I felt betrayed and abandoned, but at that point had no choice but to settle out of court. In lawsuits, sadly, it is the wealthiest who usually wins, and the poorest who usually loses.
What I have described so far is only one side of the coin. There is certainly a reason to not only allow, but foster lawsuits for wrongs committed, and to give all of us a course of redress when some great wrong has been committed against us. There are thousands of shysters out there, greedy business men and women, corrupt officials, careless companies who expose their employees to noxious and injurious compounds and chemicals, careless workers who sabotage, businesses that destroy without thought for what that is doing to all the rest of us, just so they can put millions into their own pockets, investors who delude and deceive, police who shoot without warning or just cause, or who, when riled, beat unmercifully, drug addicts who murder and invade, teens who, deprived of guidance, kill randomly, medical professional s who gouge the system, or do not do their duty. The list is almost endless, of those societal conditions where there must be some way of getting those who are full of greed, selfishness and laziness to pay for their wrongs. Our society does not survive without some means of calling attention to those who act only in their self interest, and who do not consider what effects those actions are going to have on all the rest of us. We thank our God for a legal system that is at least half way decent.
Our misfortune is that lawyers are the deciding voices in city governments. Lawyers comprise the majority of the Senate and the House of the state governments. Lawyers make up the Supreme Court of each State. Lawyers are the vast majority of the members of the United States House and Senate. The Supreme Court of the United States of America is all lawyers. Our national president, as well as most all elected officials, and appointed national officials, are lawyers. Lawyers make the rules that guide our country. Are any of them interested in passing legislation that will take big sums of money away from them and their colleagues? Obviously not. Every time we face tort reform, to throw out frivolous lawsuits before they even get started, and limit the rewards when someone is asked to pay, to reasonable amounts, those actions are vetoed or later subverted and rejected. Lawyers make the rules that benefit the lawyers. All the rest of us are paying dearly. Our entire society is paying dearly. The rich are getting richer, the poor are getting poorer, and the middle class is disappearing. This brazen self-interest of the legal profession is tearing our stable society to shreds. If our legal profession is not willing to place its greed in check, then woe upon the United States of America. Doing the best you can do, to do an honest job, will no longer count
We face a great burden of unmitigated lawsuits in the United States of America, for which we all pay dearly. The major cause of that tragedy is the legal profession, which places its greed above the needs of those that they serve.