« Read These Books -- And Sue Every Boss In Sight | Main | Title IX from Outer Space »

A Story That Doesn’t Have a Leg to Stand On

[Originally appeared in the Wall Street Journal, Mar. 27, 1995]

You've probably heard a lot lately about the poor guy in Tampa who went to the hospital to get his leg amputated and woke to find they'd taken off the wrong leg. Thanks to the skill of the litigation lobby in spinning the media, there's also a lot about the case you probably haven't heard.

It happened last month at University Community Hospital when Dr. Rolando Sanchez mistakenly removed the left rather than right leg of 51-year-old Willie King. Making matters worse were reports of two unrelated incidents of negligence -- one fatal -- at the same hospital, Tampa's third largest.

The theme was simple. This is the kind of thing that goes on in hospitals, and only lawsuits can stop it. If the wicked Republicans succeed in limiting damages in malpractice suits, patients like Mr. King will be both more numerous and less well reimbursed.

Parts of the press bit hard. The Associated Press, in dream-come-true coverage for opponents of legal reform, led off with the King case as an example of the kind of incident likely to go undercompensated "if the House of Representatives gets its way".

ABC's World News Tonight was equally unsubtle about the moral to draw, quoting Mr. King's lawyer: "Congress should be working to make doctors more accountable for their mistakes, not less." Newsweek quoted the head of the Association of Trial Lawyers of America saying something rapturous about lawsuits. Ralph Nader went on CNN.

Some press accounts added a few more details. Remarkably, Mr. King, a diabetic retiree, had not reacted to his loss with anger, at least not at first. The hospital had promptly acknowledged the error and said it was miserably sorry.

Dr. Sanchez, for his part, did not seem to fit the profile of a problem doctor. A New York University Medical School grad with an impressive background in teaching vascular surgery, he had a 14-year record unblemished by official complaints. Colleagues and former patients were vocal in his defense. The hospital itself, despite the cluster of accidents, had had no unusual rate of past problems.

One question cried out for an answer. Operating rooms are brightly lit. How could an experienced surgeon mistake a healthy leg for one with gangrene? At his news conference, Mr. King's lawyer, Peter Brudny, pursued this theme. The difference "should have been obvious", Mr. Brudny said. "Willie never would have consented to have the right leg removed if he didn't feel he had a good left leg the rest of his life."

When the hospital finally spoke to the press, after the story had been beamed worldwide, another side of the story emerged. Most of its briefing was devoted to questions of how the error could have happened and a recurrence prevented. But the hospital's chief of staff, Dr. Brendan O'Malley, himself a diabetes specialist familiar with Mr. King's case, also added a few salient facts:

* Mr. King suffered from progressive vascular disease in both legs arising from diabetic complications that had affected several organs. He was losing both legs to these complications; the question was in what order they would go.

* Both of Mr. King's legs had undergone extensive assessment. According to many of the tests, his left leg was actually farther gone than his right, its arteries 90 percent occluded. This severely diseased leg was in no way normal-looking, and would have had to be amputated in "a very short period of time". But King had asked doctors to remove the right leg because it was giving him more pain. There followed the goof.

To be sure, Mr. King's attorney flatly denied Dr. O'Malley's assertions, and with some vehemence. "He never had any serious problem whatsoever with his left leg," Brudny said of his client. "Never, ever." But to a journalist, the direct contradiction between the two accounts should make the story more interesting, not less.

Neither AP nor ABC breathed a word about the condition of King's other leg. But they wouldn't have had to do much digging. The subject had come up in Tampa Tribune coverage a week and a half earlier, available on Nexis. Newsweek was told but omitted the fact.

Now the full story may never come to light. The hospital's and Mr. King's lawyers settled their dispute, clamping a confidentiality lid on the case.

The spinmasters of the trial bar have moved on to new daily themes, such as the supposed predilection of tort reformers for oversimplified horror stories. And the press, having availed itself of such a good tale, wouldn't want to spoil it now. As columnist Diana McLellan once put it with a wink: "Never check stories out, dear. That's how you lose them."