Trial Lawyers Bring Law of the Jungle to West Virginia

The law supposedly separates civilization from the jungle: it protects us from predators. In Putnam County, W.Va., trial lawyer greed has turned that notion on its head, twisting the law to permit predators to prey on the civilized. As a result, the 55,000 residents of this small West Virginia county will lose their only hospital later this month.

Putman County is a rural community a good distance from larger cities. The hospital needs of residents have been, until recently, almost exclusively met by Putnam General Hospital (PGH), which is owned by Hospital Corporation of America, a major health care provider.

I say “have been met” because Putnam General Hospital has already stopped admitting patients and will close its doors on August 29.

Putnam General is collapsing beneath the weight of more than a hundred predatory lawsuits filed by local lawyers — lawsuits as unlikely to mete out justice as they are certain to shut down the hospital. Besides the trial attorneys, the only other beneficiary of this tragedy are local advertisers, whose revenues spiked due to more than 20 ads from lawyers trolling for clients.

How could something like this happen?

The seed of this tragedy is the strange case of Dr. John King, who allegedly mishandled dozens of surgeries at Putnam General Hospital during his six-month stint. Putnam General Hospital conducted all legally required background checks before hiring Dr. King — all of which confirmed Dr. King was licensed to practice medicine in West Virginia. And that’s all the information such checks turn up. Hospitals don’t share information about doctors who’ve practiced at their hospitals precisely out of fear of being sued if they warn other hospitals about those doctors.

In other words, hospitals like Putnam General can’t protect their patients from bad doctors and themselves from malpractice suits because fear of lawsuits has stopped the information sharing that could prevent such malpractice from occurring in the first place.

Still, something clearly went wrong regarding Dr. King’s tenure at PGH and no one is arguing against anything less than a full airing of the facts and making any injured parties whole to the maximum extent possible. That’s the common sense approach.

But the smell of blood is figuratively in the air, and the law of the jungle has taken over as trial attorneys filed more than 100 King-related lawsuits, demanding billions in damages. HCA simply cannot continue to operate Putnam General Hospital under this hail of lawsuits, and has made the business decision to close the hospital rather than continually jousting with local lawyers. Charleston Area Medical Center, a local medical facility, is racing the clock to arrange a purchase of Putnam, but who knows if they’ll succeed? PGH no longer accepts patients for overnight stays and by midnight, Aug. 25, it will stop admitting patients to the emergency room. The final closing is planned for Aug. 29. Patients who are already in the hospital would still be cared for as officials explore arrangements.

Like sharks in a feeding frenzy, these attorneys have started taking bites out of each other. A Charleston medical malpractice lawyer who helped represent 25 people suing John King has now sued those former clients for time invested in their cases. William S. Druckman partnered with lawyer Richard Lindsay and others to handle the swarm of medical malpractice claims of former patients — and is now suing Lindsey and those 25 men and women in circuit court.

“This is nuts,” Lindsay has said.

Yes, it is nuts, Mr. Lindsay — a characterization that applies just as well, if not better, to the consequences of Lindsay, Druckman and their cohorts’ legal mugging of Putnam General Hospital. As the trial attorneys’ chase their dream of instant riches, Putnam residents are left wondering what will become of them once the only hospital in the county closes.

There is an surreal quality to this story. It really is hard to believe that in a country like ours, trial attorneys are permitted to engage in out-of-control litigation that ultimately deprives citizens of a small community of their only hospital.

This may not be what these trial attorneys envisioned at the outset of their litigation binge, yet it is exactly what is happening to the people of Putnam County, W.Va. Regardless of what Dr. King did, this litigation will cause the 55,000 West Virginians of one county to live without nearby doctors, nurses, trauma centers or emergency rooms. For whom is this justice?

This scene calls on us to step back and really absorb the true difference between trial lawyers and the rest of us: To us, injured hospital patients mean human suffering that ought to be ameliorated. To them, injured hospital patients mean a vacation home, two sports cars and an antique set of dinnerware.

It also calls us to remember that the outrageous damages sought by trial attorneys don’t harmlessly fall from a magic corporate money tree that can be repeatedly shaken without consequence. Those damages are ultimately paid for by you and me in the form of higher prices, lost jobs, fewer life-saving drugs, and — in the case of Putnam County residents — a disappearing hospital. These are not covert costs that take a forensic accountant to determine. They are real and genuine and exact a frequent human toll.