“Mr. Beaver I am a physician in Northern California and read your column in the Eureka Times-Standard. My father is a surgeon and last year lost a patient even before the operation began because the anesthesiologist gave the patient the wrong anesthesia.
For some reason, medical board investigators think dad is responsible and want to meet with him. Friends say “Never talk with the authorities.” In your law practice, have you ever had a similar case and if so, what was your advice and the outcome?”
Lawyers generally advise against speaking with law enforcement
Lawyers are by no means in agreement on how to deal with this situation, but generally advise, “Never speak with law enforcement.”
I disagree with that blanket statement and had a case where one meeting prevented a costly hearing for a highly skilled surgeon who was completely innocent of wrongdoing.
24 year old in a life-threatening situation
Jerry was a 24-year-old supermarket employee with a severe dental abscess. Either the infection was poorly managed, or Jerry was not the best of patients, and his condition worsened, becoming life-threatening Ludwig's Angina.
Swelling caused by this rapidly spreading bacterial infection on the floor of the mouth can easily block the airway. Before antibiotics, 50 percent of patients died. Today, 10 percent succumb.
His mother drove him to the ER of a large and well-staffed hospital; an ENT surgeon was called, finding that emergency surgery was necessary to keep Jerry’s 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 as the patient's breathing was already compromised by pressure from this massive infection, I told him to not use an anesthetic that is overly muscle-relaxing. 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 Jerry. This is completely against medical standards. He used a muscle-relaxing drug.
Immediately, the patient stopped breathing. Over the next two hours, a team 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 Jerry 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, 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 an 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.”
'Don’t meet! You can’t trust them!'
”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. The other lawyer has thousands of dollars in attorney fees to get out of it. 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.
I 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.