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So many lawyers, so little time...

"The prospect of hanging focuses the mind wonderfully"--Samuel Johnson

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Location: Louisville, KY, United States

Gastroenterologist, cyclist, cellist, Christian, husband, father, grandfather.

Sunday, January 23, 2005

Sued by a (reputed) cat-killer

My disclaimer is that I have of course changed enough details of the occurrences to maintain confidentiality, but not enough so that the basic truth of the occurrences is obscured. In the finest tradition of northeast mainstream media journalism, you might say that these stories are "fake but accurate".

I used to believe that malpractice lawsuits were handled like traffic tickets. Just keep your record clean for five years and it will be removed from your record.

Silly me. The liability carriers take a "once-sued always-sued" approach; that is, each and every lawsuit, no matter how frivolous, stays on your record until you shuffle off the mortal coil and join the Choir Invisible.

I was sued in the early 90's for a complication that arose from one of my procedures. The bare-bones story is very straight-forward. A referring physician sent me a patient for an ERCP, a specialty test used to define the anatomy of the bile ducts and pancreas. This poor soul had been through almost every other test imaginable and was sent to me for the study more or less out of desperation.

"There is some chance that this test will help us figure what the problem is", I explained, "but there is also a chance you could experience several complications from this study. The worst of these is pancreatitis, which could land you in the hospital and even result in death".

"No problem," replies the patient. "I need answers and I'm not getting any. When is it scheduled?"

I perform the procedure without any obvious glitches. Unfortunately I get a call later in the day from the ER: the patient has returned with what looks like acute pancreatitis. The poor soul is admitted into the hospital in my name.

Three days later this soul has one of the worst episodes of DT's that I've ever seen. And he stays in the hospital for a long time. After going through hell and highwater he survives.

I was not terribly surprised when I got sued by this soul, although my office note had outlined very clearly (whew!) our conversation about the risks and benefits of the procedure, and the procedure was performed in a competent manner.

After two years of maneuvering and delays the case goes to trial. It starts on Monday and goes to noontime Friday, when the closing arguments are completed. The jury breaks for lunch and returns with the verdict: all twelve of the jurors find me not-guilty.

I imagine that winning a lawsuit like this is the scaled-down version of surviving combat: you're glad you didn't get killed but you don't really feel good about the whole thing. I grouse about this for months.

While wandering aimlessly about a mall one day, I'm approached by a vaguely familiar woman. "Hi, Doc!" she says. "I sat in on your trial a few months back. I got to tell you what happened. In the hour we were deliberating, we took five minutes to find you not-guilty, twenty-five minutes to eat lunch, and the rest of the hour discussing how (dung)-eating cases like yours tie up the courts".

I guess I felt better about it still when someone tangentially related to the suit came up to me with this story: "I wouldn't feel so bad about getting sued by the guy and yadayadayada" he says. "That guy had a very eccentric friend who owned six cats. The friend died and willed to him all six of the cats and $50,000 to take care of them in the manner to which they were accustomed. The guy had the cats put to sleep and spent the money. When the family found out about it, they sued his (fanny) and made him pay the entire sum back".

This case will hang around my neck until I'm pushing up the daisies.

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