My Turn: I Trust Juries--And Americans Like You

Like most people, I never expected to be involved in a lawsuit. But then, in May 2002, two doctors switched the pathology slides of my breast biopsy with another woman's. Following my double mastectomy, the surgeon told me I didn't have cancer. What a relief! The operation had been a success.

"You don't understand," the surgeon explained. "You never had cancer."

And so I became involved in a lawsuit against the hospital and the people who wouldn't even own up to their error.

According to "Lawsuit Hell," NEWSWEEK's cover story on our civil-justice system last week, I guess that makes me just another freeloader looking to hit the jackpot. I'd take offense--being maimed by someone else's negligence isn't winning the lottery--except that I'm used to these articles. They all use the same words to discredit the system and people who get some justice from it.

Don't get mad, get even, someone once said. I'm a wife, the mother of three sons and an accountant for a small company in Wisconsin, so I'm busy. But I've also made appearances around the country over the past year, reminding people that our jury system is the only hope an ordinary citizen like me has when she's been wronged. The system isn't perfect--what is? I assume some lawsuits really are "frivolous," but our system has a lot of safeguards against abuse.

Just as I don't judge the medical profession on the basis of the people whose errors changed my life forever, I don't judge the justice system on the basis of a few bad cases. I judge it on the thousands of people throughout American history who have gotten some measure of justice from a judge or a jury that they would never have gotten from an insurance company, an HMO or some vast conglomerate.

I've read the experts who say we need all kinds of limitations on injured people and juries because insurance companies and corporations need "predictability" about their potential liability. They want predictability? What about me? What happened to me was unpredictable. I'm tough, I have a wonderful family, so don't feel sorry for me--but don't ask me to feel sorry for those companies, either.

"Sometimes, the malpractice is egregious," NEWSWEEK admits. But who's in the best position to determine if a case is egregious or frivolous? The choices seem to be a panel of experts of some sort, or a panel of ordinary citizens--a jury. I don't apologize for trusting ordinary citizens--our friends, neighbors and co-workers.

The story mentions a case in Kentucky in which "a mother sued her daughter's school after the girl had performed oral sex on a boy during a schoolbus ride... The woman blamed poor adult supervision, saying her daughter had been forced."

When the subject is tort "reform," I've learned to pay close attention, because most of the cases that make the rounds on the Internet and talk shows are urban legends, either misleading or flat-out false.

A simple Internet search told me that the board of education had determined that the girl had been the victim of a sexual assault. Prior to this conclusion, the principal had suspended her for 10 days. After this conclusion, she was suspended again, this time for not reporting the assault.

This was the last straw for the mother, and why she filed her lawsuit. Among her demands: that the board set up training for its employees on dealing with sexual assaults. Ask any parent whether this was a reasonable response to what happened.

NEWSWEEK says people sue ministers for failing to prevent suicides, but I believe that every state court that has considered the question of clergy malpractice has rejected the claims. You say volunteers of all sorts are supposedly worried about lawsuits, but I know that both federal and state laws prohibit suits against volunteers. I think journalism's obligation is to set the record straight, not spread misinformation.

Naturally I'm drawn to the case mentioned in the cover story about the couple's lawsuit against a hospital "for failing to prevent their child from becoming disabled by a rare birth condition." I haven't been able to find details, but I'll bet that one sentence cannot do justice to the facts here--or to the tragedy.

You see, I know how tort-reform journalism works. I know how these stories get written, and who writes them. I also know whose interests are served.

Not mine in Wisconsin. Not that girl's and that mother's in Kentucky. Not that California family's.

I also know that if all those who want to restrict the legal rights of ordinary citizens have their way, I wouldn't have waited seven months for an apology from the doctors, which I got only after my story became public. I would have waited forever.