A Grave Injustice

On Saturday, a 17-year old girl died of brain failure at Duke University Hospital in North Carolina. This was a horrendous and awful occurrence, brought on by a simple mistake: the girl needed a heart and lung transplant, but the one she received was from a person with the wrong blood type. The surgeon, hurrying to give her the new organs, failed to check their blood type0. It did not match that of the patient, who endured the rejection of the transplants and the removal of her heart and lungs. After spending several days on a life-support machine, a set of organs matching the girl’s blood type arrived too late. The time she had spent on the heart-lung machine had already caused brain damage beyond surgical repair. This was a tragic outcome to a horrible situation in which the hospital and the surgeon are clearly at fault. No doubt there will be a large lawsuit concerning this tragedy. The the girl’s family will probably win millions from the hospital. Such a chain of events is not uncommon in the US nowadays. Malpractice insurers for the surgeon and the hospital will foot the multi-million dollar bill. They will increase premiums for physicians and hospitals (many of which are nonprofit), and life for the family, several million dollars richer, will continue. Although the family certainly would not be blamed for suing for millions, such an act would still be wrong. What good will receiving large sums of money from a hospital do? It cannot bring the teenaged girl back from the dead. It will serve only to chase the best and brightest away from the medical profession and to worsen the finances of many nonprofit hospitals whose mission is to aid. Unfortunately, many in the nation see the civil justice system only as a way to get money for nothing. Yes, many lawsuits are important for establishing precedent and mediating disputes between people and institutions so that an equitable solution to all conflicts can be reached. However, abusing the system for a reason that has no practical purpose is unacceptable. Granted, one could argue that if the aforementioned case were brought to suit, nothing similar might happen in the future. Doubtless the physicians should take responsibility for their mistakes, but not in such a way and to such a degree as the civil courts will provide. Setting aside this case and others similar to it, our nation must consider what President Bush said months ago in a speech in Mississippi: frivolous lawsuits should be put to an end. Obese people suing food companies for providing products which contributed to their obesity provides one such example. Another is airline passengers who sue because of undue distress during turbulence. The only purpose of such lawsuits is to tie up courts of law and to waste taxpayers’ money. Lawsuits do not exist for these purposes. Civil law is a necessary part of our legal system. Many injustices have been brought to light through it. It does not help that so many lawsuits, medical and otherwise, that do not belong in our system, seem to flood the legitimate cases out of the courtroom. Of course, when a surgeon leaves his patient open on the table to go to the bank, or when a company has knowingly released toxins into a public water supply, suits ought to be filed. However, as a society, we would save a lot of resources if plaintiffs and lawyers cut down on the greed and reinforced their scruples.