John Edwards: ambulance-chaser?

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.

18 Responses to “John Edwards: ambulance-chaser?”

  1. Andrew says:

    I’m glad you brought up this topic. As you can well imagine, I am philosophically predisposed to despise lawyers for their parasitic nature on society and the economy. But nevertheless, I am non-ignorant enough to know that attorneys play a very important role in society, and as hideous as most trial lawyers and defense attorneys are, they nevertheless are vital to the process.

    Which brings me to John Edwards. To me, inquiring into the nature of the cases is only part of it. Perhaps we can reconstruct the case and, from our vantage point, determine it to be a frivolous case. However, I am completely comfortable with accepting his colleagues’ message that “He only took the best cases, and by that I don’t mean the ones with the highest damages…. I mean the ones where somebody had done something really bad.”

    No, the key issue for me is punitive damages. I recall when I was called up for jury duty, the case I was assigned to was a medical malpractice civil suit involving an OBGYN and hospital/nursing staff who were alleged to have delivered the baby improperly, resulting in the child later developing cerebral palsy or something. I was never interviewed for the jury; 12 members and two alternates were agreed upon before I got called up to the box. On the other hand, I was ready to admit first chance I could that I am philosophically opposed to punitive damages because I believe that while the hospital should pay for any mistakes of which it has been found liable, including medical care and attorney fees, I do not believe that punitive damages act as anything but a tax on the rest of society to enrich a few lawyers and their victim clients.

    So, to the extent that John Edwards made millions off of punitive damages, I strongly resent that. In essence, my paycheck and resulting higher insurance premiums are going to line his pockets needlessly. I already oppose Edwards for many reasons, but if it turns out that he made his money off of punitive damages, and indeed he has opposed capping damages on malpractice suits, then I don’t know how you can come to any other conclusion than that he is part of the problem.

  2. Brendan says:

    I agree that punitive damages (as well as exorbitant “pain and suffering” damages) are a problem. For those reasons, medical malpractice is actually a rare issue where I would very likely be closer to Bush’s side of the debate aganist Kerry. If it were the only issue I cared about, I would vote for Bush. (It’s not, so I won’t, but if it were, I would.) I believe the federal government needs to do something to reign in runaway juries; the health of the medical profession depends on it.

    That said, I’m not sure it’s fair to condemn Edwards for having made money from punitive damages in non-frivolous cases, if that is indeed the case, given that that’s the way the system works right now. It’s not Edwards’s fault that there is no cap or ban on punitive damages in these cases, and given that this was his job, what did you expect him to do, refuse to accept the money? Beg juries NOT to award his clients punitive damages? He’d have been fired on the spot! That’s like despising or resenting folks who made lots of money off IPOs during the dot-com boom who were not themselves doing anything unethical or illegal, but just riding the bubble’s wave. We now know that the whole system was rotten, and we can blame those who made it rotten, but should we tar and feather everyone who made a buck while the making was good? As a proud capitalist, I’m sure you wouldn’t argue that, Andrew. Just about everyone acts in their own economic self-interest, and as long as they’re not doing anything illegal or unethical or shady, it makes no sense to condemn them for making as much money as possible and/or for trying to do their job well.

    So for me, the question does come down to the merits of the cases, and whether Edwards worked on sham or questionable cases (which would be unethical, in my view). If he didn’t, then I see no reason to condemn him.

    If you’re going to vote against Kerry-Edwards because of medical malpractice, base your decision on your expectation of what they would likely do in office with regard to tort reform, not on the simple fact that Edwards didn’t single-handedly try to reform his own profession in a way that would have been ruinously detrimental to his own bank account.

  3. Andrew says:

    Brendan, how are we in disagreement? Read again: “[I]f it turns out that he made his money off of punitive damages, and indeed he has opposed capping damages on malpractice suits, then I don’t know how you can come to any other conclusion than that he is part of the problem.” In other words, yes I resent him for making his millions of of working Americans’ higher insurance premiums, but the real deal-breaker is that fact in conjunction with his stated opposition to meaningful tort reform. If he admitted that he gamed the system but that the system needs to be changed, I respect that, but that’s not his position.

    Incidentally, Kerry and Edwards are even worse on tax reform. They want to raise taxes on the rich so that they “pay their fair share”, and not only do they take advantage of loopholes to escape fully paying for those taxes already in place designed to nail the rich, but they insist on keeping the loopholes that they themselves profit from when the taxes go up, meaning the middle classes are truly the ones who will suffer the most from higher taxes.

  4. Brendan says:

    “Brendan, how are we in disagreement? … yes I resent him for making his millions of of working Americans’ higher insurance premiums, but the real deal-breaker is that fact in conjunction with his stated opposition to meaningful tort reform”

    Our only disagreement is that I don’t think the former is relevant. I agree with you on the latter, presuming it’s true, which I do presume, though I can’t say I’ve looked into it much yet — as I said, I supported Edwards in February for purely tactical reasons, and as a matter of fact I don’t know much about him.

  5. Andrew says:

    It’s only relevant to explaining my resentment towards him. It’s not relevant towards explaining why he is a bad politician. I resent being pulled over for speeding, but I don’t question the cops’ authority, right, and occasional need to do that.

  6. Brendan says:

    Well, fine then.

    Like I said, if I were a single-issue voter and my single issue was tort reform, I would vote Bush. But, given that I am not a single-issue voter (and if I were, that wouldn’t be the issue), tort reform alone is not enough to sway me away from Kerry. However, if I were to conclude that Edwards’s past conduct were personally unethical, then I might be forced to conclude that I cannot in good conscience vote for him (which brings us back to yesterday’s distinction between “voting for Candidate A” and “not voting for Candidate B,” though in reverse this time). That’s why the question of the merits of his cases matters to me — because I want to know whether he was an unethical flimflam man, or just another in the long line of honest but, of course, self-interested lawyers (whose ranks I may someday join :).

  7. Andrew says:

    And like I said, I applaud you for looking into the matter, because while whether Edwards past conduct was ethical or unethical may be secondary to me, it’s still important.

  8. Sean Vivier says:

    Via Atrios:

    Trial Lawyer

    Posted by Atrios
    Medium John a “Trial Lawyer?” Bring it on, Republican beatches. This is the kind of trial lawyer John Edwards was:

    The defining case in Edwards’ legal career wrapped up that same year. In 1993, a five-year-old girl named Valerie Lakey had been playing in a Wake County, N.C., wading pool when she became caught in an uncovered drain so forcefully that the suction pulled out most of her intestines. She survived but for the rest of her life will need to be hooked up to feeding tubes for 12 hours each night. Edwards filed suit on the Lakeys’ behalf against Sta-Rite Industries, the Wisconsin corporation that manufactured the drain. Attorneys describe his handling of the case as a virtuoso example of a trial layer bringing a negligent corporation to heel. Sta-Rite offered the Lakeys $100,000 to settle the case. Edwards passed. Before trial, he discovered that 12 other children had suffered similar injuries from Sta-Rite drains. The company raised its offer to $1.25 million. Two weeks into the trial, they upped the figure to $8.5 million. Edwards declined the offer and asked for their insurance policy limit of $22.5 million. The day before the trial resumed from Christmas break, Sta-Rite countered with $17.5 million. Again, Edwards said no. On January 10, 1997, lawyers from across the state packed the courtroom to hear Edwards’ closing argument, “the most impressive legal performance I have ever seen,” recalls Dayton. Three days later, the jury found Sta-Rite guilty and liable for $25 million in economic damages (by state law, punitive damages could have tripled that amount). The company immediately settled for $25 million, the largest verdict in state history. For their part, Edwards and Kirby earned the Association of Trial Lawyers of America’s national award for public service.

    (link, which I’ve been trying to find for the past couple of days, thanks to Slacktivist).



    Posted by Atrios
    Because no one blog is big enough to contain him. From Altercation:

    In 1994, an eight-year old girl named Valerie Lakey was playing in a wading pool. She got caught in a defective drain. Her intestines were ripped from her body by the suction. She is now 17. She will have to be fed through a tube, 12 hours a day, for the rest of her life. In 1997, John Edwards won her family a $25 million judgment, of which he took a portion. The judgment helped jump-start his political career.

    On the first day of last year, as part of his opening comments on Crossfire, this is how the incident was described by Tucker Carlson, whom public and private broadcasting networks tumble all over themselves to hire: “Four years ago, he (Edwards) was a personal-injury lawyer specializing in Jacuzzi cases.”

    Jacuzzi cases.

    An eight-year old who got disemboweled.

    Jacuzzi cases.

    A child who’ll have to be fed through a tube for as long as she lives.

    Jacuzzi cases.

    Now, I know it’s a terrible thing when Whoopi Goldberg makes salacious fun of C-Plus Augustus’s last name. I know that society may simply collapse. But here is a professional communicator at the top of his profession who, because he couldn’t come up with anything else to say at the moment, smugly dispatches the tragedy of a child whose guts were ripped out. (Later in the same show, he told co-host James Carville to “Lighten up,” about his comments.) It was an interesting evening — not only should Tucker Carlson have lost every job in the professional media that he has, and not only did he lose forever any right to criticize anyone for intemperate speech, he at that moment should have been shunned by decent people for the rest of his sorry life.

    Jacuzzi cases.


  9. Brendan says:

    Thanks, Sean.

    I forwarded your excerpts to the Zaks. I figure it’s my solemn duty to defend the legal profession in my new medically oriented family. :)

    Can you post the URL in plain text? The link didn’t work for some reason…

  10. And yes this ambulance chaser receives no money
    for his services,he also volunteers at the
    homeless shelter,and also at the womens abuse
    center.It is rumored but not confirmed that edwards (intended)buys girl scout cookies.

  11. bart carpenter says:

    Despite the semantics, Tucker Carlson is not a mean-spirited guy. I’ve seen him in enough debates and interviews to realize that he’s just making his case through a little friendly antagonism…certainly nowhere near the vicious level of James Carville’s flippant remarks and ferocious attacks. Although, like
    Carlson, he does at least seem to have a sense of humor about the whole political adversarial dynamic (how couldn’t he, being married to conservative pundit Mary Madeline?)

    Anyway, most of John Edwards cases were about finding kids with cerebral palsy and figuring out a way to blame the obstetricians who delivered them, the attending nurses and the hospitals where they were born…and of course the insurance companies covering any and all of them.

    So call his cases what you will, but I have a case of naseau just thinking about how he’s running around claiming to fight for the “little guy” against “big corporations,” when in fact he was just exploiting the legal system and bilking the medical profession for enormous personal gain. (approximately 1/3 of $152-million over a four-year period…how noble and selfless can you get?).

    Instead of “jacuzzi cases,” Carlson should have said “ambulance chases.”

  12. Drfranklives says:

    At the risk of beating this dead horse, perhaps your friends in Arizona, the doctors and medical care providers who hate all lawyers, should tell their colleagues to stop screwing up and killing people. Moreover, perhaps they could call upon the AMA to support malpractice insurance systems that do not reward companies for gambling their premiums on the stock market and then jacking up rates when the market goes down. More than that, perhaps a doctor who screws up should be held publicly accountable, and pay higher rates than his or her more careful and professional colleagues, instead of all paying the same rate.

    There are many more sides to this argument than “lawyers are bad.”

  13. Andrew says:

    No, “lawyers are bad” will do. Given the number of people who post to, comment on, and/or read this blog who are associated with a future career in law (or at least further education in law), we would state no less. :-)

  14. Jeff says:

    John Edwards, and lawyers of his ilk, are part of a very serious problem in this country. It’s surprising to me how few people understand the economics of the damage they are doing to our health care system and, more directly, to doctors. First of all, it has not been the consumer who has been impacted by increasing malpractice premiums. That is part of the operating cost of being a doctor. People continually confuse the insurance pools that doctors pay medical malpractice insurance premiums into with the insurance pools that heath insurance premuims get paid into. Heath insurance companies care little about a doctors P and L. Heath insurance premiums are set based on the estimated amount of claims an insurer estimates it will pay out for medical proceedures over a given period of time. Then they add in their operating costs and add in their desired profit margin. The fact that medical professionals are getting their incomes pinched by escalating medical malpractice premiums plays NO ROLE in the establishment of health insurance premiums for consumers. The net result is that the quality of Doctors and ultimately the heath care system is deteriorating. Doctors’ incomes are trending down due to managed care and the insurance companies dictating doctors incomes as doctors’ expenses are rising disproportionately due to medical malpractice premiums. In an effort to make a living, many doctors now employ phisician’s assistants (PA) to see most patients. PA’s have much less medical training and are often entrusted with diagnosing patients soon after recieving a Masters Degree. There is no Residency for PA’s. My intention is not to bash PA’s, but just to point out that the entire medical profession is morphing before our eyes into one of less trained , less qualified medical professionals treating the consumer. This is a direct result of the cash crunch put on doctors by insurance companies on both the income side as well as the expense side. John Edwards, and those like him, are largely the culprits to the problem on the expense side. So, premuims go up and the quality of care continues to go down. This is a monumental problem and there is not even a hint of a solution on the horizon from either candidate. Don’t hold your breath waiting for one either.

  15. Kris says:

    Lawyers are a very easy target, and a very handy scapegoat – unless of course, they’re representing YOU. Everyone hates a lawyer unless that lawyer is helping them keep their job or protect their rights or compensate them for the damages that were done to their life by someone else. What’s interesting is that while LAWYERS are fingered as the culprits where medical malpractice insurance premiums are concerned, the “outrageous” multi-million dollar verdicts are awarded by juries, not lawyers – juries made up of ordinary people like you and me. Lawyers know what to ask for from juries in terms of damage awards for pain & suffering, loss of a limb, permanent disfigurement, etc. They know the amounts to ask for because all trial lawyers use previous verdict awards to determine the “worth” of their current cases. I am not making this up – I have worked for a trial lawyer for many years, and happen to be a lawyer myself (although NOT a trial lawyer). Books are published annually listing the average jury awards for damages in different kinds of cases. If you don’t believe this, check out your local law library. So – the multi-million dollar awards come from the juries, who are prompted by the lawyers, who consult the books that state what previous juries in other cases have awarded. This is not a system started by greedy lawyers, but the evolution and compilation of juror’s decisions over time, based on the evidence presented to them in court. So people like you and me are the people who serve on these juries, determine the value of claims through a verdict, which is are put in the books for the attorneys to consult so they know what to ask THEIR jury for. Why do they use the books? Because lawyers can be sued for not going after an appropriate amount of damages. That’s right – attorneys can be sued for malpractice for undervaluing a malpractice or other tort claim. Incidentally, in many states, lawyers are required to have professional liability insurance coverage themselves. Liability insurance comes in handy if you are a lawyer and you pursue “frivolous” lawsuits, since to do so is not ethical and can get you disbarred. There are procedures written into federal and state rules of legal procedure that are designed to keep “frivolous” suits from getting to court. Of course, there are suits that don’t have the strongest claim out there, but if they are being heard by a jury, it is because the judge determined that it was not a “frivolous” claim. And what about those huge fees that lawyers take? There is a limit set on fees in every state and in the federal system. Contingent fees cannot be more than 30% in most instances. So it looks like the lawyer’s really cashing in, right? Usually these cases are taken on spec – “no fee unless you win.” So who pays for the expenses when an expert has to come in and testify, charging you $1000 an hour (you may even have to pay their arifare)? Who pays for the court reporter to take testimony of doctors, nurses, witnesses? Depositions can cost hundreds of dollars. The lawyer pays for this out of his (or her) firm’s account, hoping to be repaid if the case wins. So not all of the “huge cash awards” that “greedy trial lawyers” get goes in their pocket – a lot of it goes to pay back the money the lawyer essentially gambled on the case, and parts of it go to pay “greedy” experts and “greedy” court reporters. So, in other words, while it is handy and gratifying in some way to blame greedy trial lawyers, like most things, it’s a bit more complicated that the mainstream media and wags will let on. If y’all think I’m making up the expert fees, check out the ads in the back of the American Trial Lawyers Association magazine, and you can call and get some price quotes. I’m not saying we’re all angels – some of us are real A-holes – but a few big cases that make people (people who were not sitting on the jury and therefore NOT hearing all the evidence from both sides) outraged shouldn’t taint the whole lot. Incidentally, there was a study done that tracked the flucutations in the cost of medical malpractice insurance premiums over thirty years – and lo and behold, they found no correlation with big jury awards, but instead with other non-lawyer-related things like the fluctuations in the bond market and the desire of insurance companies to drop premiums to get mopre market share, and raise them when the market for their insurance was less favorable. Interesting… If you’d care to read the study yourself, here’s the link:

  16. Kris says:

    I just wanted to add that it’s real easy for us to “know” about a lawsuit from afar, and to hear everyone say what happened and what each side said, and another thing to be in that jury box, hearing the people testify and watching them testify, and hearing both sides’ points of view. What we hear about big lawsuits is only that – it’s what we hear. If we outrage ourselves by what we hear and not by what we actually observe then we’re just being stupid. People need to be able to think critically about things and to educate themselves, and not rely on the media or other people to give them the “facts.” Scapegoating lawyers as the reason why health care and malprtactice insurance costs are high is a handy way for the industry to get us to make changes in our laws that help them make more money by paying people less for damages. The equivalent to tort reform would be like the insurance company saying that in a car wreck, your car, if totaled, couldn’t be worth more than X dollars – no matter if it’s a beater or a Rolls, and no matter how much insurance you pay. Sure, most folks might be covered, but someone out there is going to really get screwed when his Rolls or Porsche gets smashed up. I’m not saying all tort reform is bad, but I am saying that we should consider the source of both the high verdicts that outrage us, and the source of the voices for change. People need to learn to turn a question over and look at it from many angles – the world is not as black & white as we are told.

  17. bsalem says:

    I just happened onto this website while looking for John Edwards case history and happened upon this blog or whatever they’re called. Some of these comments from said doctors and lawyers are truly amazing to me. Extraordinarily (we hope) educated people, stereotyping “all lawyers” or “all doctors” as murderers and evil cash-mongers. Wow guys.
    Sometimes bad doctors screw good people and sometimes bad lawyers screw good doctors. Who’s the real loser here?