The case of Dr. John King has been a true West Virginia tragedy for hundreds of his patients and their families.
That it has grown into one for all 55,000 Putnam County residents, who will soon live without nearby doctors and nurses or an emergency room, explains precisely why our civil justice system needs reforming.
In case you missed it, Putnam General Hospital announced last week that it will close for good at the end of August. Margaret Lewis, president of parent company HCA's Capital Division, pinned the blame on attacks by local trial lawyers, who've filed more than 100 King-related lawsuits against it, demanding a billions of dollars in compensation.
Knowing what's alleged, that Dr. King botched dozens of surgeries during his six-month stint in Hurricane, maiming and even killing patients, at the surface it's hard to be sympathetic. Justice needs to be served.
The problem is that lawyers want much more than that. Because they personally keep a third or more of the take, they demand what's come to be known as "jackpot justice." That's tens or hundreds of millions of dollars in damages, when, say, a cool $1 million would more than satisfy the injured party.
Jackpot justice creates generational wealth for plaintiffs, enough to ensure neither they nor any of their family members will ever have to work again. Think about it -- a plaintiff netting a mere $5 million from a settlement can put it in municipal bonds to earn a cool $250,000 per-year, tax-free, from here until eternity. Save some seriously pricey habits, should "justice" really require more than that?
It's worth asking the question when you're helping foot the bill, which you are.
A sympathetic lot, as spectators we casually figure big numbers like $50 million or $100 million in damage are fair compensation for whatever turmoil they're meant to cure. Still we never stop to think exactly where this money comes from -- how the expense of putting a family on easy street is exacted not just from the defendant and their insurance company, but the rest of us.
Higher prices, lost jobs, fewer life-saving drugs, and in this case, a disappearing hospital -- these aren't hidden costs. They're as real as the impact they have on our lives-- and on our pocketbooks.
Killing Putnam General won't make the world more just or medical care more consistent. But it will make life in Putnam County less safe and a handful of people -- of lawyers -- fabulously wealthy.
We need a better way.