Monday, July 26, 2004

Pal Glenn links to yet another John Stossel hatchet job on trial lawyers -- this time ripping John Edwards for being a good trial lawyer.  As usual, he's just dead wrong. 

"Every product you buy has a built-in cost to cover what lawyers make through lawsuits."  No -- lawsuits about defective or unreasonably dangerous products have made those products safer. 

First, let's call it what it is: people -- through their lawyers -- suing wrongdoers for for injuries caused by their misdeeds.  If it's so wrong that some lawyers make a lot of money taking enormous time and financial gambles on behalf of their clients, then I'd like to know how much ABC pays Stossel.  I'll bet he wants for nothing.  On the other hand, is Stossel jealous over how much Edwards has made in his career?

Why do we have airbags, headrests, even seat belts?  Because the auto industry, having been sued for its failure to make their products safer, finally did it.  A sad truth is that corporate america will not do anything unless it is in their financial interest to do so.  "Hit 'em in their pocket books" seems the only way to get them to make positive changes.  Now, that's not why we file lawsuits, but if one consequence of a case is that the defendant will act more responsibly in the future, that's OK with us.  Us, meaning the public.

A good example is water heater litigation, something I've had some direct contact with.  Did you know that the water heater industry has known since the late 1950s that its gas fired water heaters can ignite flammable vapors and cause a fire?  All they had to do to reduce the potential of this catastrophic occurence 90% would have been to sell their water heaters with an 18 inch high stand.  But that cost too much, so they slapped a 35 cent label on their water heaters, which they knew did not effectively warn the public, and continued to make gazillions of dollars.  All the while, a person a day on average was being burned or killed from a water heater fire.

In other words, they made a financial decision to absorb the costs from successful personal injury cases arising out of their defective water heaters, and did so for decades.  It was cheaper than making their product safer.  Only through the efforts of trial lawyers have they now finally developed new technology to eliminate the threat.

"But paying higher prices is not the biggest effect of what the lawyers do. What may be worse is what the fear of lawsuits do to medical care and innovation."  I think this is just crap.  I tell my doctor friends that all they have to do is their best.  Just like me, if they screw up, they might actually have to take responsibility for their actions.  How unfair!  And frankly, unless it's a pretty bad screw-up, they probably won't get sued anyway.

"Everybody is in mortal fear of being sued."  Good propaganda, but if it's true, it means we've got a lot of really lousy doctors out there.  I'll just say what I have said on this blog for the last year and a half: no decent lawyer will file a medical malpractice lawsuit unless he's damn sure he's got a case.  Example: I just reviewed a possible case involving a psychiatric hospital.  Seems the guy checked himself in because he was suicidal, and they zapped him with all sorts of central nervous system depressors, as well as 100mg of MS Contin [an opiate], twice a day.  Family reported him to be acting like a zombie.  After three days, he was found dead.  Cause of death: opiate toxicity.  The hospital proably killed the guy, but the consultant who reviewed it for us wasn't terribly excited about who was negligent and how.  So we turned down the case, because it wasn't clear cut enough. 

To invest three to five years and tens [or hundreds] of thousands of our dollars, it better be clear negligence, clear causation, and catastrophic damages.  Otherwise, it's too big a gamble.  And I would bet my bottom dollar that most, if not all, trial lawyers feel the same way.

Stossel plays cute, saying first that most doctors are being sued [note the tense] and then saying that 76% of U.S. obstetricians have been sued.  The one is not supported by the other.  Just because I may have been sued in the past doesn't mean that I am one of those lawyers who are being sued currently.   In other words, it's a false or misleading statistic.

Then Stossel takes Edwards to task for a cerebral palsy case he won.  Now, it's very hard to make a case that labor and delivery caused birth injury.  The American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists will have us believe it never happens.  But it does.  I represented a little boy who was profoundly impaired becuase the idiot OB/GYN waited hours before a C-Section, when he should have known the baby was in serious trouble.  In other words, he was reluctant to do what Stossel syas most OB/GYNs do more often: C-Sections. 

I had an expert who did 90% of his work for the defense supporting me completely.  I never even had to disclose him to my opponents, because the case settled fairly early in the proceedings.  Even so, it still took three years and close to $20,000 to get there, and because the doctor had filed for bankruptcy, this child, who was going to require care that will cost $18 million over his lifetime, got much much less, limited to only the doctor's relatively low insurance coverage.  There's justice for you.  And if Stossel had his way, I guess we wouldn't even have been able to do that much for that poor child.

Stossel blames trial lawyers when hospitals cover up malpractice by failing to report it.  Shouldn't he be castigating those institutions for doing the Watergate thing?  For failing to insist that its doctors and staff perform medical services at least reasonably?  Why shouldn't they be held responsible for their misdeeds?

I'm fine with the concept of personal responsibility.  But consistency demands that we hold doctors, manufacturers, and hospitals responsible when their negligence causes injury.

Stossel says that "this kind of fear doesn't make Americans safer."  No, but the people, through their lawyers, holding manufacturers, doctors and others responsible for their negligence or defective products has made us safer. 

Oh and by the way, when the conservatives bitch about big media being liberal, take a look at Stossel and his bully pulpit.  He's touting the straight Republican tort reform -- and anti-Deocratic ticket -- line.

John Stossel: give me a break.