Reasoning with The Reason Hut

In June my friend Matt Johnson launched a multi-contributor, political blog called The Reason Hut. I’ve been frequenting the site lately and getting riled up about everything from Michael Moore to Enron. The polemical nature of Matts rants, and those of his fellow blogsters, makes the site occasionally repetitivebut always charmingly inflammatory. As the ill-fated senate campaign of Dick Zimmer liked to say, “Where do they fall on the liberal meter? Why, they’re so liberal, they break it!”

The debates are at their best when a few opposing viewpoints creep in, as was the case with a recent, rambunctious debate about environmental politics. I couldn’t resist the temptation to comment on some recently reported green technologies, and, of course, plug my cousin Cam’s article on aquaculture.

Yesterday’s post from Matt, defending John Edwards’s lawyerdom, excited me in a different way. Now, we all know that there are good lawyers and bad lawyers. (Hasn’t John Grisham has taught us that much?) Guys like Kerry, who exonerate wrongly convicted felons and indict malpracticing hair-plug specialists (see May 24 post), should be given the Medal of Freedom and treated to a cherry slurpee. But in the frenzy to replace Bush and idealize nearly everything Kerry does, is it really fair to acquit Edwards of his sketchy medical malpractice career?

Don’t get me wrong, some of my best friends are lawyers (they post here under the names Figo, Korey, and Christiano). And I’m probably a little biased, with a fiance in medical school who may not be able to practice in Pa. due to sky-high malpractice insurance. Still, the New York Times makes a compelling argument that Edwards was the kind of attorney who in the 1980s permanently altered the landscape of malpractice litigationfor the worse. First off, he was one of those lawyers who only took cases that could reap multi-million dollar rewards. As one of Edwards’s fellow N.C. lawyers said, “He paints himself as a person who was serving the interests of the downtrodden, the widows and the little children. Actually, he was after the cases with the highest verdict potential. John would probably admit that on cross-examination.”

What’s so wrong with wanting to make some coin? I mean, every law school grad’s entitled to, oh, say between $12 and $60 million of bling-bling, right? The thing is, Edwards’s suits were often based on dubious reasoning, and they probably did more harm than good. One of the most famous was against an obstetrician who delivered a baby breech instead of performing a C-section, which, Edwards claimed, cause the baby brain damage and cerebral palsy. After a spooky-sounding closing argument, where he channeled the voice of the unborn baby girl, the jury came back with a $6.5 million verdict.

As later studies have shown, the chances of the child getting brain damage during birth ware slim to none. In all likelihood, the child’s cerebral palsy was preexisting. Nevermind that, though. The precedent of that Edwards case has made suing OBs for brain damaged babies a favorite pastime of ambulance chasers. Settlements often top the $60-million mark nowadays. In early ’04, a Long Island jury returned a $112 million award. Lawyers like Edwards typically get one third.

All of this has made put OBs on pins and needles, and if a fetal heart monitor shows even the slightest blip, they lop open the pregnant mother’s belly. Caesarean deliveries have jumped from 6 to 26 percent in the last 30 years. It’s not clear whether all the needless Caesareans yield healthier babies, but for the mother, going under the knife is a pretty substantial risk to her health.

As tempting as it is to want to say, “sue the nasty corporations,” “damn the HMOs,” and “fuck corporate America,” the point I want to make here is that overzealous malpractice lawyers, like Edwards, ultimately undermine the quality of medical care. The outrageous settlements put doctors out of business, the woolly pseudo-scientific logic they use (such as Edwards’s fetal heart monitor argument) contradicts established medical research, and, ultimately, the enormous penalties and lawyer fees translate to higher medical costs to the average Joe. What we need is government to step in and contain the ballooning medical malpractice problem (with caps, compensations funds, whatever). The problem is that with people like Edwards at the helm, there’s little chance that anything will change. As we’ve seen in Pa., lawyers in the executive branch would rather spend their time “saving” the horseracing industry with slot machines than preserving quality healthcare and retaining good doctors.

See, Reason Hut, there you go. Getting me all worked up at work. How do you do it?