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A Frivolous Lawsuit:  only in the U.S. can such lunacy prevail


It was 7:55 on a Sunday morning, and the doorbell rang. I wondered who was there. I didn't order a pizza yet, and I forgot to mail in my entry into the Publisher's Clearinghouse, so I was stumped. Who was there? I opened the door, and got my answer. Without even the most cursory social preface, the gruff visitor demanded, "Are you Dr. Pezzi?" Something told me that I'd soon wish I weren't, but I said that I was. With polished adroitness, he plucked a paper from his coat, and shoved it my way. "You're being sued. Have a nice day." Have a nice day? Being sued? Such a cruel oxymoron, I opined. Once my pulse fell below 160, I looked at the name of the plaintiff—you know, the person that I'd so heinously ravaged, who was suffering because of my egregious error. The name didn't ring a bell.

Sunday passed with precious little enjoyment, much to my utter surprise. On Monday, I drove to the hospital and examined the medical record of this patient. After scrutinizing every word of his chart, I was more puzzled than ever. Why was I being sued? The man had come to the ER with high blood pressure, and I'd placed him on intravenous medications to lower his blood pressure, which came down nicely. His evaluation in the ER was unremarkable, he felt great and took a snooze, and he was later admitted to the cardiology service and placed in one of our Intensive Care Units.

Why was I being sued? His hospital course was equally uneventful, and he was discharged the next week. Over the subsequent few months, he was seen in the cardiology clinic, where his blood pressure was carefully monitored. He was noted to be noncompliant with his medicine and prescribed diet, and he had not made the slightest effort to lose weight and stop smoking, but he was about as healthy as such a person could be. Why was I being sued? He then stopped going to the cardiology clinic, and began to see a physician in private practice. A few months after he began to see this physician, he had a questionable "heart attack," was treated for it, resumed working, and resumed snorting cheeseburgers.

Again, why was I being sued? Even if I knew in advance that this patient would sue me, I couldn't have done anything any better. And, if I do say so myself, I did a superb job of CYA. Oh, but let's not forget the lawyer's strategy:  bad outcome + doctor's fear of a Michigan jury = my wife's new Mercedes-Benz. Conspicuously absent from that equation is any mention of a medical error, but such a trivial point would not deter an unscrupulous prostitute, uh, attorney. If the plaintiff really wanted to sue the person responsible for his heart attack, he should have sued himself. But such a notion is contrary to the prevalent American tendency to disavow any culpability for a self-induced malady. Had about 4000 too many meals at the all-you-can-eat restaurant? Been smoking 2½ packs per day since you were 13? Do you rely upon beer commercials for your menu planning? Do you consider walking into McDonald's to be your sole form of exercise? Your wife been frying your meals in lard? Had a heart attack? Dang, it ain't your fault! It ain't your wife's fault! Heck, no! It's the doctor's fault! Yup, that's right, the doctor's fault! Let's sue the bastard! Let's get him out of bed before 8 a.m. on a Sunday, and scare the shit out of him! Darn it, let's make him pay! I've been wronged! I've been aggrieved! I'm gonna get even, and buy me that Cadillac I've been dreaming about. Let me truncate this self-righteous drivel, and say two things:  anyone who buys into this logic is an idiot, and any lawyer who takes on such a case is an unprincipled thug.

Sure, I had malpractice insurance, but there was a nonrefundable $5000 deductible that was incurred every time a plaintiff entered the semifinals of the Malpractice Lottery. Now for the bad part:  the letters, phone calls, subpoenas, depositions, and plain ol' grief from countless lawyers, secretaries, judges, clerks, witnesses, and sundry "experts." While I pleaded with my attorney to get me out of this case, he said that I'd just have to ride it out for a while. A while? Two years later, I was still being harassed. I wasn't too surprised, though. My defense attorney doesn't get paid unless he's working, and if he could have gotten me dismissed from this suit in 15 minutes, he wouldn't be making much money. It's just a game, he told me. The more I learned about this "game," the more I realized he was right, but the less I liked it.

Finally, I'd had enough of this crap. I called my attorney and said that I wanted out, pronto. He agreed that the case against me was without any merit*, so he called the plaintiff's prostitute, and indicated that if he kept me in this suit any longer, I'd have a great case against him for legal malpractice. The case he had against me was nonexistent; a more frivolous lawsuit was inconceivable. Scared, he backed down. He "let me go." I was "free." I was "victorious." I had "won."

* Other physicians who treated this patient were also being sued, but this did little to console me.

Some victory! It cost me $5000, one girlfriend, about 600 nightmares, and untold other hours of anguish. This fiasco was ongoing at the time I was applying for a new mortgage on my home, and the mortgage company routinely inquired if I was involved in any pending lawsuits. Since I was, I ended up paying a higher interest rate. OK, the suit was over. Did the mortgage company lower my interest rate now that I was not being sued? "No," they told me, "but you're welcome to apply for a new mortgage, though." Thanks, I'll pass—I'd rather have all of my teeth pulled, without anesthesia. The $5000 was long gone, the nightmares were still reverberating in my mind, and I'd come to view almost every ER patient as a potential lawsuit. So much for my Marcus Welby image of becoming friends with my patients. And my girlfriend? Married, but not to me. Yes, I'd won. You still want to apply to medical school? This, mind you, was a victory.

Given that the allegations against me were totally unfounded, and given that I had suffered emotionally and economically from this baseless slander, I should have been able to sue the shyster, right? If a man walks up to you on a street, holds you at gunpoint, robs you of $5000-plus, and mashes your psyche, he is guilty, and can be sued for civil damages—if he is not an attorney, who is legally entitled to mercilessly plunder at will, with little or no fear of sustaining any personal repercussions. One-way battles are difficult to lose, and attorneys have stacked the deck quite nicely in their favor. Who permits such legalized rape? The Congress, state legislatures, and the courts, which are primarily filled with—can you guess?—lawyers! Surprise, surprise. And when it comes to political payoffs, uh, donations, who is the staunchest supporter of these people? No surprise there:  attorneys! A more perfect system of legislated piracy has yet to be invented.

OK, let's go back to my original question:  why was I sued? Certainly, there was no medical malpractice in this case. Apparently, the plaintiff's pea-brained attorney thought that since there are more drugs to lower blood pressure than the two which I administered, that I should have given him even more drugs. If two are good, five are better, right? Obviously not. There's such a thing as lowering blood pressure too much, and low blood pressure can be far more dangerous than high blood pressure. Had the patient received all of the drugs suggested by his attorney, I agree that he would have had a different outcome:  he would have died.

This attorney is clearly incompetent, both medically and legally. It doesn't matter that he's wrong and I'm right. It doesn't matter that I did an above-average job for this patient, whose blood pressure reduction was perfect. It doesn't matter that the questionable heart attack occurred several months after I'd treated him. If I, as an emergency doctor, could reasonably guarantee that every patient I've treated would not have a heart attack in the next year, they wouldn't call me "Doctor," they'd call me "God." Since I'm clearly not the latter, I think the standard of care to which I'm being held is ludicrous. But this is America, the land in which the legal profession has warped the concept of justice so radically that innocent people can be terrorized with impunity. Their tactics are simple:  drive a wedge between the general population and the targeted group, disparaging them as being the root of societal problems, thus creating an "us-versus-them" mentality in the minds of the masses. Then, when the leaders say "attack," the masses mindlessly comply. Is this America? Or is it at least vaguely reminiscent of another country that was notorious for its internal terrorism? While the evil thus engendered is incomparably disparate, their tactics bear an execrable similarity, and they are both plainly reprehensible.

While I know that physicians occasionally make egregious errors for which they should be held accountable, I fail to understand why society places such a singular burden of personal liability upon doctors. To illustrate this disparity, let's consider the case of two professionals who are judging whether or not a certain person is a danger to society. Assume that both professionals concluded the person was not a danger to others, and could be released. If the person were released and murdered someone, there is a strong likelihood that the professional would be sued if he were an emergency physician. On the other hand, if the professional were a judge, he would be immune to a suit for alleged malpractice. If the judge wished, he could adjourn the court and postpone his decision until he had given it a great deal of thought, and obtained the opinions of a number of experts (and called the Psychic Hotline, if he so desired). On the other hand, an ER physician may have to make such a determination within minutes, without benefit of ancillary support, all the while enmeshed in the chaos of the emergency department. Notwithstanding these factors, society allows physicians to be sued for millions of dollars in such cases, but judges get off scot-free. Given the circumstances in which they work, it would be more logical to excuse the error of the harried ER doctor, and to penalize the unhurried judgment of the judge. But that's the exact opposite of the extant laws. Such a chasm of accountability underscores the fact that justice is not evenly dispersed.

Another ludicrous disparity in professional accountability concerns the private lives of physicians vis-à-vis judges or attorneys. I recently read in the newspaper that a certain physician faces up to life in prison (!!) because he had sex with a patient. If he raped her, or if she were not an adult, such a sentence would be understandable. But she was a consenting adult** who met him in various out-of-town motels for trysts. For this the doctor should be penalized with a life sentence? It's insane! The punishment is far worse than the crime—if there was any crime at all (heck, murderers usually get off easier!). If a judge or an attorney slept with a defendant, it would make for quite a scandal, but they would never face the prospect of imprisonment for life.

** The patient now contends that she felt pressured into having sex with the physician because, she alleges, he said that he would not continue to be her physician unless she consented to have intercourse with him. Thus, the prosecutor contends, this is tantamount to coercion. What a specious argument! Even if the allegation were true, anyone with a room-temperature IQ would realize that coercion could not be effected in such a manner. Let’s see . . . my doctor won’t continue treating me unless I consent to intercourse, and that’s not something I want . . . oh, what should I do? This is obviously not one of the great mysteries of the Universe. The answer is simple:  fire the guy, and get another doctor. Duh!

That doc was tall, handsome, confident, and charming, which is likely why she had an affair with him. He also wasn't shy in revealing that he had something else most women want—something that even a cursory visual examination might reveal. Another cursory examination would reveal that this doctor was hardly a rocket scientist. Various patients told me he was a quack, and my boss said he was struggling to keep his private practice going. Perhaps there was a connection between his perceived ineptitude and his financial problems that, according to my boss, motivated him to moonlight in our emergency department and others. When Dr. Quack told me what other hospitals he worked in, I wondered how he found time to sleep. And sleep around.

Read another example of a frivolous lawsuit

For an excellent analysis of what should be done about frivolous lawsuits, see:  www.balancedpolitics.org/editorial-frivolous_lawsuits.htm

Back to the Dr. Pezzi interview

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