Kerry’s selection of Edwards as his runningmate is proving potentially disastrous for his chances of earning the Zak family’s three votes in the swing state of Arizona — perhaps just as disastrous as if he had selected Hillary. I spoke to Mrs. Zak, a retired nurse, on the phone last night, and she was railing against Edwards’s history as a medical-malpractice lawyer, winning multi-million-dollar verdicts in (according to her) flimsy, scientifically unsound cases. Dr. Zak, a retired eye surgeon, gave Becky the same shpeel a few minutes later, and before long, Becky, herself a trained EMT, was repeating it to me.
Needless to say, medical malpractice law — and the need for reform thereof — is a hot-button issue with the Zaks. I should have anticipated that the selection of Edwards would cause them to turn against Kerry (not that any of them were solidly in Kerry’s column before, but they were all, as best as I could tell, on the bubble), but having supported him for purely tactical reasons during the primaries, I hadn’t read much about Edwards’s past, so I didn’t realize that malpractice suits, in particular, are where he made the bulk of his fortune.
The thing is, although I have no medical training, I care about this issue, too. I agree with the Zaks that malpractice verdicts have gotten out of hand, and it is a severe problem that insurance rates have gotten so high that in some cases doctors are retiring (because they can no longer make adequate profit to make it worthwhile) or refusing to perform certain procedures. So the question, really — and it’s an important one — is: are the claims about Edwards’s sham verdicts true?
“Illinois’ current shortage of qualified doctors is exacerbated by ambulance chasing attorneys like Vice-Presidential candidate John Edwards,” writes columnist Lee Enokian in the conservative Illinois Leader. That’s all well and good, as ad hominem attacks go, but what are the facts? Is Edwards a responsible attorney who goes after cases where there is real fault (not all medical malpractice verdicts are wrong, after all), or is he really an odious ambulance-chaser who does whatever it takes to make a buck, even if that means invoking flimflam science to trick gullible juries into persecuting innocent doctors?
The New York Times has an interesting article about Edwards’s lawyering history, suggesting (rather plausibly, methinks) that there are — you know — two sides to this story. Yes, the article contains some quotes and anecdotes from Edwards’s enemies suggesting that he’s a money-grubbing bastard. But it also this quote, from a courtroom adversary who defended doctors and hospitals against Edwards’s lawsuits more than a dozen times:
“He only took the best cases, and by that I don’t mean the ones with the highest damages,” Mr. Cooney said. “I mean the ones where somebody had done something really bad.”
A spokesman for Edwards is also quoted as saying, “He employed a full-time medical staff to make sure the cases he took were those with the most merit, and he would not go forward with any case without the support of experts in the particular medical field.”
Of course, you’d expect a spokesman for Edwards to say good things about him. And you’d also expect a New York Times article to highlight the positive about the Democratic candidate for vice president. But to me, the quote from a long-time courtroom opponent basically saying that Edwards is not an irresponsible ambulance-chaser is quite powerful.
So what’s the truth? I don’t presume to know without looking into it further (which I intend to do). But it’s clearly not as simple as some conservatives want to make it out to be (and as some lazy journalists will let them). As I wrote to Becky in an e-mail:
Quite often, these things are distorted by news articles and opinion columns and the rumor mill, to the point that perfectly legitimate cases (or at least debatable cases that reasonable people can disagree on) end up being made to sound totally frivolous and ridiculous by being taken totally out of context. … It’s all part of the demonization of trial lawyers, and it’s unfortunate, because truly frivolous cases are a real problem, but that problem is cheapened when people assume that all cases are automatically frivolous just because, you know, lawyers are evil.
Now, when conservatives and Republicans (who are especially prone to hate lawyers anyway) have such a powerful motive to demonize this particular trial lawyer (they want Bush to win, duh!), you can understand why I’m skeptical and I want to look at the evidence myself.
Links to additional articles and evidence about Edwards’s past are welcomed. I am not prejudging this issue, pro or con. It’s actually one that matters to me, so like I said, I want to look into it more.
And now, I’m off; we have a meeting at noon here at work. More later, when I resume my lunch break after the meeting.