A major pitfall of my law practice is that I meet many people who have suffered catastrophic losses. The year after I began practicing law in 1980, a rabbi named Harold Kushner wrote a book entitled “When Bad Things Happen to Good People." Kushner addressed one of the great conundrums of theology, which is: if the universe was created and is governed by a God who is of a good and loving nature, why is there is so much suffering and pain? In the book, Rabbi Kushner seeks to offer comfort to grieving people. He does not answer the ultimate question as to why God allows evil and suffering, but instead claims that God does his best with people in their suffering, but is not fully able to prevent it.
I don’t plan to engage in a theological debate on the subject, but I could write my own book on the suffering that many of my clients have undergone. The death of a beloved spouse, child or parent, or injuries causing unrelenting pain and misery. I don’t know why God allows suffering, and while the Apostle Paul said that we should rejoice in our suffering “because we know that suffering produces perseverance; perseverance, character; and character, hope.” I don’t see much rejoicing and hope amid the suffering of my clients.
The saddest period in my career was spent representing a young mother of four children who suffered a life-threatening stroke that left her locked in. “Locked in” syndrome is a condition in which a patient is aware but cannot move or communicate verbally due to complete paralysis of nearly all voluntary muscles in the body except for vertical eye movements and blinking. She never regained her ability to speak and her only voluntary movement was limited mobility with one hand which allowed her to type messages on a laptop computer. She was trapped in her own body with an unaffected mind with very little hope for the future.
We alleged that the stroke occurred because a radiologist misread two different CT scans in the span of eight months. The first mistake occurred after a fall which led to an attempt to diagnose whether she had suffered a head injury. The second scan was done hours before her stroke after she reported to the emergency room with dizziness. Both scans were signaling the stroke.
I became her lawyer because of a happenstance meeting in a hallway at St. Luke’s Hospital where I was attending a deposition. As I was walking with my opponent, I merely mentioned the name of the hospital where we had another deposition that afternoon and my client’s brother was eavesdropping and heard me mention the hospital which was where the mistakes occurred. He stopped us and told us the sad story of his sister’s stroke and my opponent suggested that they should hire me. Some would call this coincidence, but I happen to think it was a meeting arranged by God. Fortunately, my client’s uncle, a longtime lawyer and friend, affirmed her decision to hire me.
It was the most challenging case in my career not only because I had a client who was helpless and had lost everything including her marriage and her family. Supposedly, she had a medical condition that made her stroke inevitable. I had consulted with a neurologist from New York who called me on a Sunday afternoon and told me I had no case. After the devastating news sank in, I pledged that I would not stop at that point. Persistence is one of my best qualities and while I may not be the brightest bulb in the lamp, I don’t quit easily. We found another stroke neurologist at Harvard University who is probably the leading expert on stroke in the history of medicine. He carried the day.
We settled the case at mediation. My client had told me that what she wanted more than anything was a house constructed for her disabilities so she could have a place to continue to raise her four children. She also wanted a wheelchair van so she would have mobility. No amount of money would compensate her for her losses and her demands were very simple and attainable. We could have probably received more if we had tried the case, but she did not want to gamble. She just wanted to go to a place she could call home with her children.
We had discussed setting up a special needs trust for her. She needed 24-hour care that was provided by Medicaid and she could not afford to lose her governmental assistance. The special needs trust, approved by the state, allows those receiving assistance from Medicaid to retain their benefits, but any purchases made through the trust are to be approved by a trustee and all property is owned by the trust so that if the beneficiary of the trust dies, the state recovers the money from the trust funds that remain.
A house was purchased and fitted for her, and a wheelchair van was acquired. She was reunited with her family.
Unfortunately, my client died in 2015 almost five years after the settlement. Medicaid came to retrieve the money it had paid out for her care. There were ample funds left in the trust to repay Medicaid after the house and van were sold. The only asset that remained was an annuity that that had been purchased as part of the settlement that provided for monthly payments of more than $2,000. Those payments were guaranteed and increased by 2 percent each year so my client’s children will each have over $500 per month paid to them for the next 15 years. A mother’s love provided for her children in many ways despite her handicap.
I don’t know why my client suffered a stroke. She did nothing wrong. Her misery continued for over seven years until the Lord called her home. I am blessed for having the opportunity of helping her and her children, but I am still haunted by the question of “why.” Words do not comfort me.
-- Bob Buckley is an attorney in Independence, www.wagblaw.com. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org