Last week one of our clients died. After being diagnosed with late stage prostate cancer, he came to us about six months ago. There was really no question that the VA healthcare providers were negligent. His steadily rising PSA (Prostate Specific Antigen) had simply been ignored. By the time they figured out he had cancer it was too late. His time was short. He and his wife knew it when they came to us.
We quickly filed a claim on his behalf and then approached the VA lawyer about settling the case. Our message was blunt: This veteran was dying and they should do the right thing and try to settle the case now. My letter was ignored. Nothing. Around Thanksgiving we again contacted the VA lawyer with the same suggestion – and we told her explicitly that time was running out. Again, no response. We didn’t expect he would make it to Christmas, but he did and right after New Year’s I again contacted the VA lawyer pleading with her to try to resolve the matter while there was still time. Ignored.
After he died last week, I sent a message to the lawyer telling her he passed. Even that got no response.
I am a lawyer. It is my job to take care of my client. It is not my duty to look out for the other guy’s client. The lawyers representing the VA or any other government agency have a similar obligation to their client. For better or worse, claims are an adversarial process. It is that way by design. Other than my short time as an artillery officer in the Army, litigation – this adversarial system - has been my life’s work. I will fault no lawyer for aggressively representing his or her client, even the VA. Still, I am bothered by how this claim has been handled, very bothered in fact.
Being a zealous advocate does not mean one has to be nasty or calloused. It does not mean that one is excused from the rules of common courtesy. We are dealing with the lives of real people. At best, ignoring the plight of this dying veteran was rude. Maybe the lawyer was just lazy and inattentive, but the effect is the same. I am not a conspiracy theorist, but I could also argue that the lawyer was consciously “waiting out” my client. That would not only be appalling, it would also be very poor lawyering. The matter is not going to go away because the veteran finally died. The wife’s wrongful death case probably has greater value than the veteran’s case would have had while he was living. In attempting to settle the case before he died, we were well aware that the VA would likely get a discount (and we would get a proportionally lesser fee). But the client would have gotten some peace of mind – and that would have been worth it.
We’ll pursue the widow’s case. We are already making that shift. I hope we can get her a good recovery, but there are no guarantees in this business. That is something of which I am painfully aware. Still, even if we are ultimately unsuccessful, when it is all over we’ll be able to sleep at night and look at ourselves in a mirror. If she has any conscience at all, I doubt the VA lawyer involved will be able to do that.