The true final verdict of my malpractice trial

May 16, 2008

A lawsuit left this physician with worries about his reputation, until a surprising patient visit took place. 2007 Doctors' Writing Contest - Young Doctor Award

Doctor, you were involved in a malpractice suit last year, weren't you?"

The question from my new patient, Roger, hit me like a kick in the stomach. I wasn't sure what to say. "Yes," I replied weakly, the blood draining from my face.

A malpractice case is difficult for any physician to go through. But for a small- town, rural doctor like me, the potential damage to your reputation makes it even worse. A year after my trial ended, I still wondered what rumors were running through town, what my colleagues were saying, and who else knew about the case.

"I didn't mean to embarrass you, but my son was a juror in your trial," Roger said.

Recalling the trial

The case involved a delivery in which I'd been an attending physician. Because of severe shoulder dystocia, the baby had gotten stuck in the birth canal and sustained brain damage.

Following the birth, the teenage parents brought in a skillful Chicago attorney whose specialty was "bad baby" cases. At trial, he posed questions designed to corroborate the basic premises of the malpractice suit against me-namely, that I should have anticipated the problem, ordered more tests, and opted for a C-section instead of a vaginal delivery.

He was very good at his job, I've come to realize. But at the time, I despised how he tried to spin the facts as he presented the plaintiffs' case. Struggling to contain my emotions, I occasionally found myself doubting my own medical judgment. Worse yet, I wondered what my family and friends were thinking as they heard his convoluted questions unfold. If I was starting to doubt myself, surely others in the room had begun to regard me as grossly incompetent.

My own attorney was equally skilled, however. As we prepared for the case, he told me, "Steve, these jurors are from your community. You're a doctor here. You know how to talk to them-how to explain the medical facts in a way they'll understand."

And that's what I did when I took the witness stand. I responded openly, honestly, and with simple explanations to the opponent's roundabout questions and confusing statistical charts. And when the plaintiffs' attorney tried to rattle me with his loud and angry demeanor, I remained calm and measured, relying on the same interpersonal skills I've always used when handling patients in crisis.

An unexpected vote of confidence

My reverie was over in a flash, as Roger began recounting the details of the trial through the lens of his son's experience in the jury box.

"My son is a farmer," he began, alerting me that this was somehow important to the case. "In the jury deliberations, there were a few people who thought you might have been wrong-that maybe those poor kids deserved some money for what happened to their baby. But after a while, my son told me, he couldn't take it anymore. So he stood up and explained to the jurors a few things he knew as a farmer.

He talked about birth and about how, sometimes, things just happen. He talked about recognizing a good, honest doctor when he saw one. And, of course, in the end, the other jurors came to agree with him."

As he ended his story, I recalled the jury foreman's announcement: "On the question, 'Is the defendant professionally liable for injury to the defendant?' we, the jury, by unanimous vote, answer No."

Then Roger resumed speaking. "So, you see, when we moved to town and I asked my son who I should go to as my doctor, he recommended you. I just wanted you to know that he could tell good things about you during that case and that he wanted you to be our doctor."

I thanked him for his candor and finished up the visit, all the while fighting to maintain my composure. But as I walked back to my office, my eyes welled up and I was crying. After all the embarrassment and self-doubt my malpractice case had engendered in me, there was a juror who not only believed my defense, but trusted me enough to refer his elderly father and mother to me.

It was at that moment that my patients started to feel like my friends again-and not simply like liability risks. It was on that day that I finally let go of my nagging self-doubts. For even though I'd won my malpractice suit over a year earlier, it wasn't until Roger's visit to my office that I received the final verdict.