Saturday, July 24, 2004

Sen. John Edwards made his millions by making a science of malpractice cases. The trial lawyer carefully screened potential plaintiffs and then used a mixture of research and rhetoric to prove cases in court, winning exceptionally large jury payoffs.

However, the North Carolina Democrat appears to have often used cause and effect relationships that were suspect then and are even more dubious now. That practice gives an ominous prelude to the political themes that would play during an Edwards vice presidency.

Mr. Edwards earned a considerable portion of his millions on cerebral palsy cases. Cerebral palsy is a set of debilitating diseases that impair movement. The muscular disorders — which can include involuntary movements and difficulties with many motor tasks, ranging from walking to writing — are caused by damage to or faulty development of the motor areas of the brain. Until the 1980s, many medical professionals believed that damage could be caused by a lack of oxygen to the brain during delivery. As a consequence, Mr. Edwards was able to successfully sue doctors who did not demand Caesarean deliveries as soon as the infant’s fetal monitor suggested that it was short of oxygen.

Yet, even as Mr. Edwards was perfecting his science of suing, evidence was growing that the blame was misplaced. Studies demonstrated that most of the children who developed the disease had brain damage well before they were born. Scientists now believe that, like other brain disorders, cerebral palsy has a wide variety of causes, which likely include both genetic and environmental factors.

As a consequence of the expensive efforts made by Mr. Edwards and his fellow malpractice practitioners, doctors often rush to perform Caesarean sections, with rates rising from 6 percent of births in 1970 to 26 percent today. Yet rates of cerebral palsy have remained stable in populations, regardless of how many Caesarean sections are performed.

That led the New York Times to point out in a Jan. 31 article, “There is a growing medical debate over whether the changes have done more harm than good.” More harm is likely. Ceasarean sections are major surgery, putting both mother and infant at significant risk. Mr. Edwards claims he acted on behalf of helpless victims, but the costly claims made by Mr. Edwards and other lawyers have driven doctors away from some areas of practice, taking their care and cures elsewhere.

Mr. Edwards even sued the American National Red Cross three times, winning confidential settlements on claims that HIV had been transmitted through contaminated blood supplies. During his career of allegedly championing the helpless, he took no pro bono cases.

There were, of course, real people behind Mr. Edwards’ wins — people who suffered terrible pain and loss. But Mr. Edwards did little good — and likely did much harm — by using questionable science to prove his cerebral palsy cases. Messrs. Kerry and Edwards are both staunch opponents of malpractice and tort reform, and so such practices are likely to continue if they are elected.

Mr. Edwards has perfected the science of malpractice law, but supporting his candidacy seems like an unsound idea.

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