We hear so much about who is responsible for the current climate of medical malpractice lawsuits. However, what we hear so little about is the true cost of the irreparable injuries that medical mistakes and errors create.
Here's what I mean-
A young man suffered a heart attack and because of the extensive heart damage, he needed an emergency triple-bypass to keep him alive. Despite the emergency surgery, he suffered many complications including kidney failure, fluid in his lungs and an inability of his heart to fully pump his blood. He also needed a heart transplant, but because of his continuing and ongoing medical complications, he was no longer eligible as a candidate for a heart transplant.
This young man became trapped in his own deteriorating body. He could not walk more than 10 steps without having to sit down. He could not go up or down stairs. He could no longer breathe without difficulty. He spent most of his day sitting on the couch or in bed because his body could no longer give him the strength to walk across his bedroom. He took 40 pills per day. Each pill had its' own risks and side effects. Many of the pills caused side effects including constipation, high blood pressure, bleeding, frequent urination, decreased appetite and more. Yet he still needed these pills to continue to live.
Let me backtrack for a moment. These injuries were totally preventable because months earlier, this young man had made complaints of chest pain both to his doctor and doctors in a hospital. Both misread the results of his cardiac testing. Had they accurately interpreted the tests, this young man would have had elective heart bypass surgery, and would never have had the devastating heart attack that will limit his life forever.
The costs of these life-altering injuries were staggering.
Let's start first with the economic loss. That is something that we could actually calculate using the amount of money he was earning in the last few years before the malpractice occurred. An economist could actually project the amount of money this man would have received, assuming that he continued in the job he was in and moved up the ladder over time, over the course of his working lifetime. That number was staggering and clearly defined. Also, we looked to the additional benefits he received, including health insurance, dental, bonuses, vacations and gifts. Again, recognize that these benefits could be calculated and these losses could be predicted over the course of a lifetime.
Then we move our focus to the "non-economic loss" to the young man and his family. What is his pain and suffering worth- from the time of the malpractice until the time of trial? What has his family endured while watching a once vibrant and successful businessman turn into a reclusive hermit, physically incapable to take his young child to the bus stop in front of their home in the morning? What does it mean when the wife must now become her spouse's nurse 24 hours a day? Every little activity needs assistance. For example, when the phone rings and the young man cannot race to the phone to see who is calling, he needs help. When the doorbell rings, and this young man takes 15 minutes to get to the front door, he needs help. Going to the bathroom is an unpleasant and uncomfortable task- not just for him, but for his wife, who does everything she can for her loving husband.
What is the value of these tragic moments in this young man's life?
Let's go back for a moment to the economic loss. Do you know how much rehabilitation costs? For this man, he needed rehabilitation 5 days a week. He needed to learn to walk again. He needed an aide to help him get across the room. He needed oxygen in his room 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, 365 days a year. How much does continuous oxygen cost? He needed bandages, needles to check his sugar level and insulin injections every day for the remainder of his life.
This young man could not work anymore. How would he support his wife and child? This once proud bread-winner now must rely on his wife and strangers to help him with life's daily needs. How will he pay his mounting medical bills if he has no health insurance? How can he afford to pay the health insurance premiums if he can't work?
How do we, as a society, put a price on the value of this man's injuries?
The economic cost of this man's injuries were significant- in the multi-million dollar range.The non-economic cost was also significant- but that is an area of compensation that defies an exact number.
All too often, critics of our justice system beat the drums of "tort reform" claiming that frivolous lawsuits are responsible for (1) Doctors leaving medicine, (2) High medical malpractice premiums, and an assortment of other perceived ills created by "trial lawyers." Yet we rarely hear how the truly injured victims experience astonishing, astronomical and catastrophic economic losses. Who will pay for their injuries? Who will pay to make the injured victim and his family whole again?
It is often said that when a wrongdoer causes harm, he owes a debt to the injured victim. That debt must be repaid. A catastrophically injured victim's costs are large, and the debt to repay grows larger every day. Compensation is literally a debt that must be repaid in full. Not partial payment but full payment. Anything less is a discount that only benefits the wrongdoer.
I had the privilege of representing this young man and his family in their awful tragedy. The true value of his permanent injuries are more than one can possibly imagine. The economic injury, the pain he and his family endure, and the agonizing suffering he goes through each day is simply unthinkable. Yet, I think of him and his family every day.