Moral Monsters

There’s lots of reasons why the lawsuit over John Ritter’s death (the “Three’s Company” actor, if you remember that show) is categorically asinine.  You can read about the latest here.  But here’s one of the biggest problems with the case:

The suit is for 67 million dollars.

The jury are being told that the doctors did everything wrong, largely because they treated Ritter for a heart attack when in fact he was having an aortic dissection.  Only mildly important in this case is the fact that the dissection actually did lead to a heart attack and that, in general, they are extremely easy to miss.  There’s lots of ways to interepret the actions of the medical staff and lots of mistakes that can be identified now that we have all the information about the case.  But note who is making the claim – lawyers.  Not doctors who have been in these situations.  Not doctors who have made similar mistakes.  Sure, they’ll get some doc to say exactly what they want on the stand, but the argument is being made by lawyers.  These are people with no training in medicine and who probably had to look up ‘aortic dissection’ before they took the case.  They aren’t in this game for truth, or to improve the medical system.  They want one thing:

Show them the money.

As I’ve mentioned before, the major problem with medical litigation in the U.S. is the financial incentive.  Ritter’s lawyers have already successfully sued the hospital and 8 medical personnel for close to 14 million dollars.  Now they’re suing two doctors for an additional 67 million.  These lawyers stand to make a fortune on this case.  They’ve hit the jackpot.  A typical John Edwards haul.  Soon, after the minor detail of catastrophically destroying the emotional and possibly professional lives of two doctors, these lawyers will be able to enjoy their 26,000 square foot homes, $400 haircuts and send their kids to the best schools in the land, just like our earstwhile presidential candidate who also sued doctors to ascend to his upper-class life.

You can say that people are basically good; that common decency would dictate that you don’t excoriate someone for an honest mistake, especially if the truth is murky and unclear anyway.  You might assert that we all need grace in the harsh light of hindsight and you might be honestly grateful for the times when this kind of grace has been extended to you.  Most people believe these things.

But I bet you still wonder at times – while living out your grim job day after day with no hope of real financial freedom – just what it would be like to live in a mansion and never have to worry about money again.  What would it be like to get the best service, own nice cars, have the ability to take care of your financially ailing family?  We’d all like to live that way…the allure of a life like that is intoxicating even for good people who generally want to do good things in the world.  This is why the system is broken.  When it comes to medical litigation, the very rules  we follow entice even the moral among us to become monsters.

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