Tuesday, June 16, 2009

Culpability and Intent in Relation to Medical Malpractice Lawsuits

"If you have taken the drug, wonder-dundersol, and then had a tear in your Achilles tendon, contact us! You may be eligible for payment!"

Have you seen any of the commercials in this genre? Some law firm announcing that there is a big lawsuit underway, trying to gather up all the plaintiffs they can to increase the pile of money they can squeeze out of a drug company.

Something very damaging to our society is happening. As a society, we no longer seem to assume good faith on behalf of our fellow Americans. For example, if a new drug ends up having a nasty side effect, a whole lot of people seem all-too-willing to assume that "somebody is to blame." Someone must have done something wrong; somebody must have wanted to cut corners; somebody was incompetent.

Well, maybe. But maybe not.

Producing a new drug is an extremely complex and difficult endeavor. Not many compaines in the entire world can do it consistently. There are many, many things that have to be done and many things that could go wrong. If a new drug ends up having a bad side effect that was not foreseen, it does not mean necessarily that somebody messed up. It just might be a result of the fact that developing drugs is really hard and the drugmakers cannot look into a crystal ball and predict how everything is going to go at every step along the way.

If someone wants to bring a lawsuit against a drugmaker, there should be genuine culpability involved for whatever went wrong. This has to involve intent on some level. If I am making a new drug, and doing everything meticulously as I should, not skipping any steps, doing all the testing carefully, there still could be negative side effects. The drug might be from a natural product, and this product might contain some things that have an unforeseen bad effect in some people that was not uncovered in the development and testing process. In such a situation, I would not be culpable (worthy of blame) for what was simply in the drug naturally, if I carefully followed all the expected procedures for developing and testing the new drug. You can't catch absolutely every possible negative thing all of the time.

If I were a drugmaker, and I was incompetent in some way, or deliberately cut some things short, or did not test properly, etc., then, I might be culpable for not finding out about a negative effect of the drug.

I wonder if anyone who suffers from a bad effect of a new drug cares nowadays about the difference between the above two situations? In the first, even though the drug had a negative effect, the drug maker would not be to blame--he did everything right and tried his very best to produce a good, safe product. However, in the second case, the drug maker did not do everything right. In this case the drug maker would be culpable (at least partly) for the negative effect. This is because somewhere along the way there was an intention--a deliberate decision made with a certain end in mind--to do something (or not do something) that the drug maker knew was not as it should be, yet he did it (or omitted it) anyway.

Same result: a drug with negative effects. But, different culpabilties. In one case the drug maker would be culpable; in the other, not. The difference is in the intention of the drug maker.

We are going to sue ourselves into financial and social ruin if we cannot rediscover this basic difference and accept that it matters.

This applies not only to drugs, but any situation where there has been a negative medical outcome. Was someone truly to blame? If not, then we sould not be suing.

Sometimes, bad things happen and we cannot do anything about it. And, there is not always someone to blame. We need to stop acting as though we have some right to pin blame on somebody simply because we are suffering. We need to grow up, and stop acting as though we are the center of the universe. We need to assume that our fellow human beings have the best intentions in what they do unless we have good reason (and not merely because we want to blame somebody) to conclude otherwise.

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