Tale of Two Blunders

Patients, administrators, and family members of victims aired their reflections about medical errors in a video on the on-line New York Times this week (November 25, 2008).  They all lamented that if only doctors and hospitals could own up to their mistakes, there just may be fewer lawsuits.

Two stories I listened to more than ten years ago underline that theme.  A friend, a lawyer representing a medical provider, shared with me his concern about his client that he would be defending at trial that week.  He had advised his client to settle because the evidence against his client was strong and he was not optimistic.

The patient had acquired an infection while in the hospital.  The evidence was incontrovertible and the patient had died.  But the patient was old and infirm and had little time left and even less quality time.  The infection may have hastened the inevitable but it also made the end needlessly painful for both the patient and the patient’s family.

The family asked only that the hospital not bill them for the extended six month hospital stay caused by the infection.  If the hospital agreed they would not sue. The hospital could not admit to a mistake and, as a result, appeared headed for a judgment that would cost the hospital several times the hospital stay.

The second story was from woman I met while waiting for jury duty.  It seems that during stomach surgery her doctor had perforated her stomach and he did not discover it before she was stitched back up.  The stomach acids caused havoc on her intestines.  I asked her if she had sued her doctor.  Oh no, she was quick to reply.  The doctor was so distraught about the mistake.  She could not do that to him.  He had paid for all her medical expenses since the incident several years earlier.  In addition, he only operated on one patient after that accident, resigning from his surgical practice, but not from his medical practice.

Two stories, two very different responses form the blundering providers resulting in two very opposite victim reactions, and two very different litigation results.


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