The value of suing the doctor

Flipping channels the other night, we came across the documentary Hot Coffee. The premise of the movie is that the U.S. justice system has been distorted by big business reaction to the well-known case of the 83-year-old woman who sued McDonald’s after received third degree burns a spilled coffee.

The documentary sites four stories as examples of how medical associations, insurance companies and other powerful healthcare organization have sought to prevent juries from being able to award high levels of damages. One of the cases it profiles is a Nebraska couple who sued their doctor after one of their twin sons was born with cerebral palsy.

They argued that their doctor did not do an ultrasound or react quickly enough when  Lisa Gourley complained that the babies weren’t moving. A jury awarded their son Colin $5 million in medical expenses and $625,000 in compensation for pain and suffering.  But, because has a Nebraska law limiting the level of compensation, the judge ruled they could only receive $1.25 million.

In an interview about the movie, the family says after the twins were born they tried to find out why  Colin ended up with brain damage and why their doctor hadn’t acted sooner.  For two years, they got evasive answers. When they finally found a doctor who was also a lawyer, he told them that their doctor had not provided an adequate standard of care and launched the law suit.

In the movie, you see  Colin unsuccessfully trying to put candles in a birthday cake. There are also shots of him as an infant with oversized glasses, him using a walker and other pieces of equipment and him with his regularly developing twin.

The images left me feeling uneasy. I wasn’t sure if they were chosen to make his life look particularly hard to create sympathy for the family and build the film’s case. I don’t remember any pictures of him smiling or laughing.

I understand that this part of the documentary was to show how big business had influenced certain state legislatures to bring in these limits or caps on what they argued were vexatious or frivolous law suits. And, because of the cap in Nebraska and the unwillingness of private insurance companies to provide coverage, the Gourleys had to put Colin on Medicade.

The movie was only tangentially about Colin and his quality of life, but it left me with an uneasy feeling about the whole idea of suing. Obviously, it can take care of some of the considerable financial hardship of caring for a disabled child. But I wonder how much it helps the family’s emotional and psychological healing.

After spending most of Colin’s life waging the lawsuit and appeals, the Gourley’s can say that Colin’s cerebral palsy is a result of the doctor’s malpractice. All their hard work does not change Colin’s condition. Does it really answer why it happened?

I wonder if when Colin was born they knew what they know now whether they would do it again.


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