After discovery, depositions, and delays, the case went to trial. The plaintiff’s attorney, an experienced litigator, led off the proceedings with an impassioned opening statement that left some of the jurors wiping their eyes.

“Were it not for the lack of proper treatment by the defendants,” he declared dramatically, “a young man would be alive today. Had they taken the time to investigate what sort of car he was driving and to understand how the seat belt works in that car, they would have—should have—realized that this boy could be suffering from serious abdominal injuries.” 

The defense attorney’s opening statement was considerably more subdued. He described how his clients were haunted by Tim’s death, but he stressed that the clinicians did everything they should have done and had no reason to suspect a lacerated liver.

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It was a freak injury, the lawyer argued. “A blood clot in the liver prevented the laceration from being discovered until it ruptured. Sometimes,” he added softly, “tragedy just happens.”

The plaintiff’s attorney called Tim’s parents as his first witnesses. Their testimony left the entire jury in tears.
Then he called Dr. T to the stand and questioned him about his treatment. But he also wanted to know if the physician had determined the type of car Tim had been driving and what sort of seat-belt system it had. Dr. T replied that he hadn’t asked and didn’t think it made a difference.

Cross-examined by his own lawyer, Dr. T described the patient’s six separate examinations and two hours under observation. If the patient’s liver had been bleeding during that time, there would have been signs in the lab tests and other indications, the doctor said. He speculated that a clot formed in the liver, effectively preventing blood loss until the following morning, when it ruptured. “This was a rare injury with an atypical presentation,” Dr. T concluded.

The plaintiff’s attorney next called Mr. E and asked the same questions. The PA admitted that he hadn’t inquired about the car or its seat belts. Like Dr. T, he testified that the patient’s vital signs, lab work, CT scans, and x-ray were all normal. No abdominal tenderness or pain was apparent upon release.

The plaintiff’s attorney then introduced an expert witness in emergency medicine. She testified that the safety belt in the late-model car Tim was driving had two parts: a shoulder harness and a separate lap belt. The tightening of the lap belt on impact could cause severe injuries, she said.

She went on to assert that Tim should have been monitored overnight, not just for two hours. On cross examination, however, she was forced to admit that even had Tim been in the hospital when his liver ruptured, the injury was so severe that death would still have been the likely outcome.

After the plaintiff’s lawyer rested his case, the defense attorney asked the judge to send the jurors out of the courtroom. He then made a motion for a directed verdict of dismissal.

The judge retired to his chambers for an hour. When he returned, he granted the defense’s request. “This is not a decision I make lightly or flippantly,” he said, nodding to the parents sitting at the plaintiff’s table. “I am sorry for your loss, but I must dismiss the case.”