By Douglas E. Penner:
So, you have been served with a lawsuit. You knew medical malpractice lawsuits were possible. You have heard tales about other healthcare providers being sued or seen attorneys advertising about verdicts against health care providers. You knew it could happen to you, but you never thought that it would. You certainly never anticipated such a wide range of emotions in response – everything from apprehension and anxiety to frustration and anger to denial and withdrawal, and perhaps sympathy for the patient or even pity for yourself. None of these responses is unusual.
Soon after receiving the lawsuit, you meet with your attorney. After introductions, you discuss the healthcare that is the basis of the lawsuit and maybe a little bit about the life of a lawsuit. The meeting usually ends with an ominous instruction: “Do not discuss the lawsuit or anything about the underlying circumstances with anyone other than your attorneys”. This is very good advice. Communications with your attorneys are privileged so there can be open and candid discussion of the case. Communications outside the presence of your attorneys are discoverable and could lead to depositions of those individuals by the patient’s attorney, in order to investigate whether you said anything inconsistent with your deposition testimony. However, not discussing the situation can cause isolation and intensify the emotions you are already experiencing.
Here are a few tips to help manage your emotions and foster a better relationship with your attorney:
First, openly discuss your emotional reaction to being sued. Attorneys are generally very good listeners and have probably had a past client who has felt the same as you. It can be very beneficial to take the time and have the willingness to discuss how you are feeling with your attorney.
Second, make sure you have a good understanding about your role on the “team” while preparing a defense to allegations. Knowing your role, what is expected of you and when you will be needed to contribute will lessen your anxiety. If you disengage and isolate yourself from the lawsuit and your attorney, you are defeating your ability to defend yourself and lessening the likelihood of prevailing in the lawsuit. Your full cooperation, and equipping your attorney with as much of your expertise as possible, will improve your chances of success. By providing your expert insight, your attorney will be better prepared to navigate the defense strategy and retain experts who will view the case like you do. Also, be sure to share any concerns about the care you provided, as this is important information for your attorney.
Finally, make clear to your attorney the manner of communication and the frequency of contact that will best serve your needs. For example, some doctors want to be constantly updated on every development in the case. Others prefer to have as little interruption to their practice and personal life as possible. Determine the communication that will best help you manage your emotions, but remember that you need to be available to your attorney.
Your attorney is your advocate, so good communication and exchange of information is in your best interest.
Douglas Penner is an attorney with the law firm of Goodman Allen Donnelly. He specializes in hospital risk management, medical malpractice defense, health care law, and State Board licensing and credentialing matters. www.goodmanallen.com