Surviving a Lawsuit

What EMS providers and managers should know and do in order to stay out of the courtroom.

     After 25 years in EMS, Bob Morley has come to expect certain hazards. Wayward bullets, patients with knives, burning cars, contaminated needles-at one time or another, he has encountered all of these dangers. Recently, though, Morley faced a threat from an entirely unexpected source-a telephone conversation that posed all sorts of bizarre questions: How much money do you make? How often do you work overtime? Do you own your house or rent it? The man on the other end of the phone was a lawyer. Morley was being sued.

     "It caught me off guard," recalls Morley, a paramedic with Boston EMS. "While responding to a call, we'd been involved in a collision. Nobody seemed to be hurt, and it was no big deal. But then, all of a sudden I get this call, and I learn I've been named as a defendant. When the lawyer asked about my finances, I hung up on him. Then I placed some calls of my own-one to the lawyer who represents my department, and another to the lawyer who represents our union."

     Morley was fortunate. He was dismissed as a defendant. However, his experience is hardly an uncommon one. In 2006, more than 30 EMS-related lawsuits reached the appellate level. Hundreds more were decided at trial or settled out of court. Patients and their families have sued EMTs and paramedics for virtually every EMS activity, from negligent ambulance operation to the improper performance of medical procedures. Paid and volunteer organizations alike have been sued, mostly for the acts of their employees, but also for providing insufficient training or failing to adequately supervise personnel in the field.

     Standing on the defendant's side of a courtroom is a nerve-wracking experience. With juries sometimes awarding millions of dollars to victims of medical negligence, it can be an expensive one as well. In today's litigious society, EMS personnel cannot totally eliminate the risk of liability. By learning something about defense strategies, however, you can make better decisions-decisions that will not only reduce the likelihood of a lawsuit, but improve your chances of winning if you do become a defendant.

Avoidance: The BEST Defense
     Some lawsuits are decided by long, complicated trials. Others are dismissed almost immediately. No matter how frivolous the claim might seem, EMTs and paramedics should never seek dismissal on their own. With so much at stake, a motion for dismissal should be prepared and presented to the court by an experienced trial attorney.

     Unfortunately, this costs a fair amount of money. Lawyers typically charge between $100-$200 a hour, with large firms in major cities demanding even more. These rates apply not only to time spent in court, but to all work performed on the client's behalf. In the case of an EMT or paramedic hoping to have a lawsuit dismissed, this means several hours of research, followed by several hours to draft the motion. Bills of $10,000 or more are not unusual.

     You won't have to pay anything, of course, if a lawsuit is never filed. The goal of every EMT and paramedic, then, should be to avoid litigation altogether. Studies have shown that patients are less likely to sue healthcare providers who disclose their mistakes and apologize for them, rather than ignoring them or trying to cover them up. Simply put, when you make a mistake, an apology and a professional attitude may spare you thousands of dollars in legal fees, and perhaps a costly jury award as well.

Loose Lips Sink Suits
     Lawyers are often portrayed as sleazy liars who break the law to win cases. While this characterization makes for great jokes, it's not really accurate. Lawyers in every state must adhere to a strict code of ethics, with violators facing hefty fines and loss of the right to practice.

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