A recent letter to The Ethicist column in The New York Times brought a perspective worth considering to the question of medical malpractice. Manned by author Chuck Klosterman, the column offers insight on the moral obligations humans have in given situations. Everyone from wronged spouses to kleptomaniac office workers write in with their ethical conundrums. The answers are invariably concise, curiously empathetic, and, in some cases, just shy of accurate.
Last October, a victim of medical malpractice wrote to The Ethicist asking about the long-term implications of his suffering at the hands of a hospital, where he suffering far beyond his initial injury. The question was not whether he should pursue redress. Instead, he was wondering whether he was obligated to do so in court, even past the point of a settlement.
The plaintiff said he was eager to help other possible victims avoid a situation similar to his. A lawsuit seemed like the best way to create a public record against the hospital and the physicians who wronged him. But, looking down the road, he wondered about the long-term repercussions of that crusade for justice.
He asked, “If I begin a lawsuit and I’m offered a settlement (which would not create a public record), must I ethically see the suit through and risk losing?”
The victim had clearly dedicated ample time on the case already. He had reported the incident to various accrediting agencies including the hospital, the state board of medical examiners, and insurance investigators. In response, Klosterman drily noted, “You’ve reported this incident to (seemingly) every possible governing board within the local medical community.”
The Ethicist’s answer was that creating a public record through a lawsuit was not the victim’s responsibility. Klosterman continued that it might even be considered a violation of ethics to pursue a matter into an already overburdened court system simply for the sake of helping society.
Minor Correction from the Comments
A new participant stepped into the conversation via the online comment thread following the posted article. The comment noted that a complaint to a state board about hospital negligence results in a mandatory investigation. Whatever actions are taken against a hospital, even outside of court, result in public notice available to anyone surfing the web. Essentially, the complaints made by the patient/victim have thoroughly taken care of all concern for public record.
While Klosterman wasn’t wrong about a lawsuit being unnecessary for the sake of public record, he failed to emphasize the primary point for going to court in a case of malpractice for the victim to get justice for himself.
You Don’t Have to Be a Hero to Get Justice
As a response to the original question posed to The Ethicist, malpractice suits are not a hero’s errand.
Plenty of exciting, inspiring movies have been made about medical malpractice victims, and the crusading lawyers who represent them, whose quest for justice makes them national news. Sometimes the attention brought to certain cases turns into a resounding cautionary tale that strikes fear into the hearts of negligent practitioners and uncaring institutions.
But that, as another commenter on The Ethicist noted, takes years, not ninety minutes.
It would be nice to think that each time a lawsuit like this takes place, physicians and hospitals are made a little more accountable. In the end though, a medical malpractice lawsuit is about one thing: getting the financial help you need to recover your life. The personal story of seeking justice is the most important public record a malpractice victim can create.