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Edwards’ malpractice suits leave bitter taste
Question of the Day
The American Medical Association lists North Carolina’s current health care situation as a “crisis” and blames it on medical-malpractice lawsuits such as the ones that made Democratic vice-presidential candidate Sen. John Edwards a millionaire many times over.
One of the most successful personal-injury lawyers in North Carolina history, Mr. Edwards won dozens of lawsuits against doctors and hospitals across the state that he now represents in the Senate. He won more than 50 cases with verdicts or settlements of $1 million or more, according to North Carolina Lawyers Weekly, and 31 of those were medical-malpractice suits.
During his 20 years of suing doctors and hospitals, he pioneered the art of blaming psychiatrists for patients who commit suicide and blaming doctors for delivering babies with cerebral palsy, according to doctors, fellow lawyers and legal observers who followed Mr. Edwards’ career in North Carolina.
“The John Edwards we know crushed [obstetrics, gynecology] and neurosurgery in North Carolina,” said Dr. Craig VanDerVeer, a Charlotte neurosurgeon. “As a result, thousands of patients lost their health care.”
“And all of this for the little people?” he asked, a reference to Mr. Edwards’ argument that he represented regular people against mighty foes such as prosperous doctors and big insurance companies. “How many little people do you know who will supply you with $60 million in legal fees over a couple of years?”
Through a spokeswoman, Mr. Edwards declined to comment beyond e-mailing his and John Kerry’s “real plan for medical-malpractice reform.”
The plan calls for one measure that Mr. Edwards previously had said is meaningless and does not impose caps on verdicts for economic damages or limits on attorneys’ fees.
One of his most noted victories was a $23 million settlement he got from a 1995 case — his last before joining the Senate — in which he sued the doctor, gynecological clinic, anesthesiologist and hospital involved in the birth of Bailey Griffin, who had cerebral palsy and other medical problems.
Linking complications during childbirth to cerebral palsy became a specialty for Mr. Edwards. In the courtroom, he was known to dramatize the events at birth by speaking to jurors as if he were the unborn baby, begging for help, begging to be let out of the womb.
“He was very good at it,” said Dr. John Schmitt, an obstetrician and gynecologist who used to practice in Mr. Edwards’ hometown of Raleigh. “But the science behind a lot of his arguments was flawed.”
In 2003, the American Academy of Pediatrics and the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists published a joint study that cast serious doubt on whether events at childbirth cause cerebral palsy. The “vast majority” of cerebral palsy cases originate long before childbirth, according to the study.
“Now, he would have a much harder time proving a lot of his cases,” said Dr. Schmitt, who now practices at the University of Virginia Health System.
Another profitable area of litigation for Mr. Edwards was lawsuits against psychiatrists whose patients committed suicide.
In 1991, he won $2.2 million for the estate of a woman who hanged herself in a hospital after being removed from suicide watch. It was the first successful medical-malpractice case in Mr. Edwards’ home of Wake County.
During jury selection, Mr. Edwards asked potential jurors whether they could hold a doctor responsible for the suicide of their patients.
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