Armed with that information, the plaintiff’s attorney initiated a case against Mr. B. On being served with the legal papers, Mr. B’s first reaction was dismay; he’d never been party to a lawsuit before. His second reaction was remorse. He realized that he must have accidentally sutured the ulnar nerve while stitching up the bleeding artery.

He also realized that Mr. R’s complaint about feeling like someone had “zapped” his funny bone and the subsequent numbness of his fourth and fifth fingers should have been a tip-off to the problem.

Would he have paid more attention to the complaints had the patient not been so hostile? Did his desire to be rid of Mr. R blind him to a valid complaint? Mr. B didn’t know.

A flurry of paperwork between lawyers ensued and depositions began, but the case was settled out of court for $275,000. 

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Legal background
Settling before trial is not at all unusual. In fact, the majority of cases do not make it to the trial stage. Usually, this benefits both parties because the expense of a trial and the uncertainty about how a jury will act can be daunting.

In this case, Mr. B did in fact make a mistake—one that went undiscovered and uncorrected despite the fact that Mr. R had brought classic, recognizable symptoms to the attention of hospital staff. Settling was probably the right choice.

Protecting yourself
There will always be unpleasant patients, and mistakes will happen as long as clinicians are human beings. The challenge is to listen to every complaint without being influenced by the patient’s personality. As Mr. B discovered, this may help to avoid an error or, at the very least, aid in recognizing a mistake and remedying it. 

Ms. Latner, a former criminal defense attorney, is a freelance medical writer in Port Washington, N.Y.