Saturday, February 19, 2005

Rick Romero, Sr.: Our Lawsuit Culture

Frivolous: lacking in any arguable basis or merit in either law or fact.

President Bush on Friday signed a bill that he says will curtail multimillion-dollar class action lawsuits against companies and help end "the lawsuit culture in our country." "We're making important progress toward a better legal system," he said. "There's more to do. ... We have a responsibility to confront frivolous lawsuits head-on."

How many people do you know have sued and made big money from a frivolous lawsuit? Are you or someone you know a part of the lawsuit culture? I am not ashamed to admit that I'm a part of the lawsuit culture. Litigation was the only way my family could obtain necessary medical treatment and care for a disabled brother.

There are two words insurance companies love to use. These words are: claim denied. Once you hear these words, you have two choices: One choice is to walk away and forget the whole thing and the other is to find a lawyer and litigate. Here is what you will discover: An insurance company will spare no expense to justify why your claim was denied.

In 1965, my brother Reuben was working for a radio station and he fell two stories off a radio tower and broke his neck. Being a young, strong man, (he was 19 years old) Reuben survived the fall, but he was a high level quadriplegic. Reuben was totally paralyzed from the neck down. There was no hope he would ever walk or move again because there is no cure for quadriplegia.

Shortly after Reuben's fall, my parents filed a Workmans' Compensation claim on Reuben's behalf with Liberty Mutual Insurance Company. Liberty responded by denying Reuben's claim for disability and asked for a Hearing.

Due to the back up of Workmans' Compensation cases, the Hearing date was several months off. During the Hearing, Liberty's lawyers argued that it was too soon to make a determination about his injury and they asked for a delay. The judge went ahead and ruled in favor of Reuben. Liberty appealed, and another round of Motions were made along with more medical exams and depositions taken from expert witnesses. A year went by, and the Workmans' Compensation Court of Appeals rejected Liberty's Appeal.

Reuben had been a quadriplegic for nearly two years before he was able to proceed to the next level of care he needed - - rehabilitation. Again, Liberty denied his claim for treatment this time stating Reuben's injuries were too severe to merit rehabilitation. It would take another year to hold a new Hearing that would determine if Liberty should pay for Reuben's rehabilitation. During that year, Liberty filed new Motions and conducted more medical exams and depositions taken from expert witnesses. For the Hearing, Reuben was too ill and unable to be moved to the Courthouse, and so the Hearing was held at his hospital bedside. The judge ruled in favor of Reuben, granting him rehabilitation but Liberty promptly filed an Appeal. For several months, there were more Motions and new arguments made before an Appeals Court that eventually denied Liberty's Motion for Appeal.

For the next ten years, there were more denied claims, but my parents gave-up with litigation and paid for Reuben's treatment and care out of their pocket. My father was an auto mechanic and once a month, during his free time, he would find, repair and sell a car to pay for Reuben's attendant care. Doing this dedicated task for ten years and caring for Reuben at night and weekends wore my dad out, and it became obvious that Reuben needed to litigate again. There were many denied claims that Liberty would have to defend.

Here is a partial list of their denials and defenses: Liberty's defense for denying a wheelchair van was that it made no sense to them why a severely disabled man would need transportation. After all, where could a severely disabled man go? Not all buildings have ramps, in fact most are inaccessible for wheelchairs. Liberty also felt Reuben's injuries were too severe to allow him to travel outside his room. An electric wheelchair was denied because Liberty felt that paid Attendants at the nursing home could easily push his wheelchair around wherever he needed to go. Liberty would not provide full time Attendant home care because they reasoned that it was, after all, my parents who were obligated to provide care for family members, not impersonal Attendants.

After a long illness due to complications from quadriplegia, Reuben died a few months ago. He had been a quadriplegic for over 39 years. When Reuben was dying, Liberty denied his claim for hospice care. They said Reuben was faking his death in order to improve his chances for increased medical treatments and benefits. We held an emergency Hearing four days before he died.

Reuben's legal files filled an entire room in our house. I lost track how many times Reuben's claims were denied In 2001, after Reuben had been paralyzed for 36 years he was still litigating for home care treatment. At that time, Liberty paid over $10,000 to have a medical doctor flown in from another State to examine Reuben to see if his paralysis had improved over time.

Once during a break during a Hearing in 2002, Liberty's lawyer privately apologized to me. I asked him how he could live with himself knowing how many needless problems he had created with his endless Motions and defenses. His answer was honest, simple and quick, "I have a duty to vigorously represent and defend my client, and I have a large overhead and lifestyle to support."


At 10:37 AM, Blogger Michael said...

Wow, thanks for sharing that, Rick. Ours truly is a system out of control, but not the way the Republicans portray it. Not by a mile. Great post!

At 5:36 PM, Blogger Tiny Montgomery said...

How God awful! Alas, this situation is far from unusual as I know from my experience as an attorney. Such tactics are clearly immoral. But what I really can't understand is the inefficiency inherent in resolving these disputes. Consider all the money paid to defense counsel, the 1/3 going to plaintiff's attorneys and the cost of all the bureaucrats, adjudicative personnel and infrastructure. Cost doesn't seem to be an issue unless the benefits go to an injured worker.

At 3:33 PM, Blogger Chuck Mattern said...

Hi Rick, I don't think you and I ever met but I worked with Reuben for about 18 months in the early 80's. He is truly one of the most inspirational men I have ever known. Through his fortitude, thoughtfulness and intelligence he has helped many of us to live better lives. His example has influenced all of my kids and many of my students and friends. It's a shame that such an amazing man was treated so shabbily.


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