How Physicians Insurance Helped Me Survive (and Win) a Malpractice Lawsuit
Mary-Lou A. Misrahy, ARM
President and CEO
This quarter I wanted to explore how Physicians Insurance provides value to its members in ways that distinguish it from other companies, so this month I am turning my column over to Dr. Bohmke, one of our members. Her words speak volumes about how Physicians Insurance helps members navigate a hostile legal environment and lengthy process so they can continue to provide quality medical care to their patients.
By Karen Bohmke, MD
Karen Bohmke, MD, practices obstetrics and gynecology in Seattle. In October 2008 she was sued for injuries alleged to have been sustained by an infant delivered in February 2001. Physicians Insurance successfully defended her case. Following a five-week trial, a King County Superior Court jury found for the defendant in October 2010.
Before I had a claim, I had not really considered the value of professional liability insurance. As an obstetrician, I knew that insurance coverage was an expensive necessity, but I really only remember thinking what I’m sure most physicians think: I hope I never have to use it.
All that changed one day when I received a notice of an intent to file a lawsuit. A few weeks later, the plaintiff filed a lawsuit, and I learned more than I ever thought I would about the experience of being sued. I learned, for example, that a deposition is not about fact-finding at all. I learned that sitting at a courtroom table with my attorneys, and then watching the jury enter, is strange and isolating. I learned what it is like to question my own competence. But I also learned what it is like to work with amazing people in the legal profession and to feel like an essential part of a legal team. I learned how important it is to be well prepared for trial. I learned what it feels like to be supported by my family, my partners, and Physicians Insurance during a difficult time. In fact, while I still remember the many difficult parts of going through a trial, what also has stayed with me are the good experiences. Three elements of my experience made all the difference.
Knowledge I cannot say enough about how impressed I was with the caliber of people who worked on my behalf during this process. From the beginning, I had confidence in my claims representative, Kym Shepherd, and my two lawyers, Jeff Street and Elizabeth Leedom. They were incredibly competent and caring people. They meticulously evaluated every detail of the claims asserted, keeping me informed of the opinions of our medical experts and developments in the case. The experts retained to review the case, who would ultimately testify on my behalf, were knowledgeable and credible, and many are nationally respected in their fields. Decisions were made in a thoughtful, well-reasoned, and collaborative way. My legal team honored my choices and valued my input. Throughout the process, we as a team evaluated settlement options, and I felt well informed before I made my decision. While settlement would have meant that the whole process would end more quickly, the best choice for me was to proceed to trial, and Kym, Jeff, and Liz were well prepared.
I was impressed with the effort that went into preparing my case. To prevail at trial, my attorneys knew the jurors would need to understand the judgments I made when providing care to my patient nine years earlier. They knew we would need to educate a jury—composed of individuals with varied backgrounds and experiences—on complex medical issues, changes, or evolutions in medicine during the preceding decade and be able to explain why the plaintiff’s disabilities were unrelated to the medical care I provided. To tell our story, they employed the use of consultants, conducted jury research, developed incredible illustrative exhibits, and presented the most thoughtful, intelligent expert witnesses. Prior to the start of trial, I was prepared for every detail—from jury selection through the verdict. Countless hours were spent and every consideration given to achieve the best outcome at trial. It was gratifying to see the results of our efforts as the case was presented to the jury. I gained an appreciation for the level of professionalism, dedication, and commitment by my legal counsel and Physicians Insurance. They advocated for me with strength and conviction—always in a respectful manner and with an unwavering belief in me and in our case. Though I know trial always poses uncertainties, I could not have been more confident in my legal team.
Soon after my claim was filed, Dr. Ron Hofeldt, the director of physician affairs at Physicians Insurance, contacted me to say he was available for support throughout the legal process. His availability as a resource was reassuring, and his calls were timely, informative, and supportive. Dr. Hofeldt proved to be a great resource.
Kym, Liz, and Jeff were always available and supportive. It was wonderful to feel supported by well-prepared, knowledgeable, intelligent people. The days and weeks of trial were tiring in every sense. It was difficult to be away from practice and the comfort of normal routines. There were intense moments, listening to criticisms of my professional judgments or competency, and tedious moments, dealing with legal matters or issues that seemed to be remote from anything relevant to medicine. It helped that my partners, members of my office staff, and my family attended the trial whenever possible. I also appreciated seeing Physicians Insurance staff members who attended my trial.
The plaintiff asked the jurors to return a verdict of approximately $8 million. While the jury was deliberating, I felt confident. Whatever the outcome, I knew my lawyers had done a great job on my behalf. The jury deliberation was brief, and fortunately, we won the case.
Following the verdict, I had an opportunity to speak with several jurors who were supportive of our case. The jurors were very compassionate toward the plaintiff but well understood the toll taken on a physician who has had an adverse outcome. Physicians Insurance conducts formal interviews following trial as part of their continuing effort to enhance the potential for success at trial. I was heartened to learn how well the jurors understood the complex medical issues, and I think this is a tribute to my lawyers and the expert witnesses.
Throughout the two-year process, Physicians Insurance did everything they could to help me continue with my practice. I was able to focus on my patients, and they helped me manage the burden of being involved in a legal case. I knew that Physicians Insurance and my attorneys were taking care of every detail. During the trial my partners cared for my patients, and Physicians Insurance provided support to offset financial pressure associated with being away from my practice.
Now that the experience is behind me, I can say that my attitude toward being sued has changed. I thought the experience might impact my interactions with patients in a negative way, but that has not been the case. I continue to enjoy my practice and my patients. In my line of work, with its potential for complications, I realize I don’t control everything. I know things can go wrong despite my best efforts. I know that a physician can get through a long trial with a company like Physicians Insurance.
I feel very fortunate that Physicians Insurance provided such excellent coverage, and I am grateful I had an amazingly supportive insurance company willing to stand behind me.