April 21, 2008 (Original publish date) • By Dennis Beaver
Your phone rings. It is a police officer requesting that you come down to the station to be interviewed about a case in which you could be either a witness or possible suspect.
If you know anyone who has been in this situation, ask how much fear and worry that one phone call creates. Lawyers are by no means in agreement on how to deal with this situation, but commonly advise, “Never speak with law enforcement.”
I disagree with that blanket statement. This article will look at a case where talking with law enforcement prevented a costly and embarrassing public hearing for a highly skilled surgeon who was completely innocent of wrongdoing.
William was a 22-year-old supermarket employee with a severe dental abscess. Either because the infection was poorly managed, or William was not the best of patients, his condition worsened and became life-threatening Ludwig’s Angina.
This is a rapidly spreading bacterial infection on the floor of the mouth, with swelling which can easily block the airway. Before antibiotics, 50 percent of patients with this infection died. Today, 10 percent succumb.
His mother drove him to the emergency room of a large and well-staffed hospital; an experienced surgeon was called who believed that emergency surgery was necessary to keep his airway open. The surgical team was notified, including Dr. W, the anesthetist who was on call that night.
“I explained to Dr. W. my diagnosis, and it was obvious the patient’s breathing was compromised by pressure from this massive infection. You don’t use a muscle-relaxing anesthetic with a patient whose breathing is already threatened. To do so takes away that patient’s ability to breathe on his own,” the surgeon explained.
But hospitals are dangerous places. Before the operating room was ready, while the surgeon was in a different part of the hospital, the anesthetist began to sedate William. This is completely against medical standards. He used a muscle-relaxing drug.
Immediately, the patient stopped breathing. Over the next two hours, teams of doctors attempted a miracle. “I had his heart in my hands, forcing it to pump blood, praying to God that he would live,” the surgeon told me the next day, in tears.
At 4 that morning William was pronounced dead.
A medical malpractice suit was filed against the hospital, and all doctors involved. The surgeon was dismissed from the suit, as he was clearly not to blame. An out of court settlement was reached, and the California Medical Board was notified of the incident.
For some reason that is unclear, state investigators focused on the surgeon! They were unaware of the timeline, of what led to the patient’s death, unaware of what killed the young man, and were about to file an accusation against the surgeon — the first step to revoke a license to practice medicine.
He called his old friend and lawyer, me.
“We need to immediately ask for a new interview, in person, where you can help them understand what happened,” I told him.
“Isn’t it dangerous to speak with the authorities?” he asked.
“If we do not, you will face a formal accusation,” I warned. “But get a second opinion.”
“Just wait and see if they file that accusation, and then we will defend you. Don’t meet with the investigators; you can’t trust them,” he was told by another lawyer.
My reply? “You have nothing to hide and want the truth to come out. So does the Medical Board. Realize that the other lawyer has thousands of dollars in attorney fees to get out of it. I am certain that once the board sees the whole picture, everything will be dropped.”
He took my advice, and we met with the investigator, the deputy attorney general, and the state’s medical expert. Hours later, stern faces softened.
One week later, a letter was received from the Medical Board. They were dropping the case. Because of our meeting, they had all the facts for the first time.
I phoned the investigator and we talked about this issue — to meet or to avoid speaking with law enforcement.
“My job is to find out what happened, objectively. You would be surprised how many lawyers have gotten their clients charged by the state unnecessarily, when a face-to-face meeting would clear up the entire matter,” he said.
While you can easily find some lawyers who will disagree with me, after being both a deputy DA and in general law practice for over 25 years, I still believe that most people in law enforcement are honest and do not want to see an innocent person prosecuted. I have often had my clients meet with the police and have never seen information twisted or distorted.
And that is what it all comes down to. The truth.
Dennis Beaver practices law in Bakersfield and enjoys hearing from his readers. Contact Dennis Beaver.