All In Jest
The war of attrition launched by Paul Bel Geddes started insidiously. Sybil’s deposition in the van der Hoef case was scheduled four months after she received her 90 day letter, something of a record for efficiency in a civil case. Carter Tarkington, Hyrum Willis and their client, and the court reporter showed up at the appointed hour at Bel Geddes’s ornate office and waited impatiently while the customary past scheduled hour passed without the plaintiff’s attorney arriving. Just as the court reporter lost her patience and was standing up to put away her machine, the conference doors opened, and one of Bel Geddes’s secretaries bounced in.
She smiled sweetly–and vacantly, thought Sybil–and announced, “I’m awfully sorry, but Mr. Bel Geddes is unavoidably detained. His wife is very ill, and he will have to cancel for today. He will ask for a continuance. Sorry for any inconvenience this might have caused you. Mr. Bel Geddes asked me to tell you that.”
When the three of them filed out of Bel Geddes’s office, Carter made his apologies for Bel Geddes’s recurrrent egregious behavior, mentioning in an aside that he had won another short round with a classical cheap shot.
Hyrum took the opportunity to say to Sybil, “Dr. Norcroft. I know he got us a little today, but he is way behind. It will take him two decades of playing this game to make up for the coup you dealt him in the Jason Turner affair. I have to admit that I had my doubts about you when you first snuggled up to him. I’ll tell you, though, it was the best move I ever heard of, the way you pricked his balloon in the court room. My compliments on a master stroke or mistress stroke, whatever is proper pc.”
He grinned broadly at her and gave her a two handed thumbs up. She laughed appreciatively, glad that he recognized that his cause for anger at that time had been ill placed.
Sybil’s side won the contest over where the van der Hoef case would be tried. The judge wasted only one day in deciding in favor of the less formal binding arbitration format over the more expensive and time consuming jury setting.
Nothing happened in Evangelina Juarez’s case for nearly two years after the 90 day letter was received and then the suit formally filed on time. Twenty-three months later, when Sybil had comfortably forgotten the case almost entirely, the busy neurosurgeon was noticed of a date for her deposition one month hence. The notice came directly from Paul Bel Geddes’s office, circumventing the legal courtesy of dealing directly with her own attorney and arrived on a particularly frustrating day when Sybil had had to deal with the ruthless agents of two HMOs. She viewed the reception of the notice from Bel Geddes as nothing more than she should have expected from the small-minded vainglorious attack dog.
To the surprise of both Sybil and of Carter Tarkington and his firm, no notice of continuance was received before the scheduled date. Sybil gritted her teeth and trashed her office and OR schedule to allow the time for the deposition. She and Carter met in his office one day before the scheduled deposition.
The attorney met Sybil in the reception room of his firm’s suite of offices as soon as the receptionist informed him that she had arrived.
“Hello, Dr. Norcroft. Come in. We’ll be most comfortable in my office, there’ll only be three of us–you, me, and Hyrum Willis. You remember Hyrum, don’t you?”
Tarkington led Dr. Norcroft down the hallway to his office. Hyrum Willis was waiting there for them. He stood when Sybil entered the room.
“Hi, Dr. Norcroft. Glad to see you again.”
“I would prefer different circumstances, but it is nice to see you again, Hyrum. How is your family?”
“Great. Growing like weeds. How is the horse business?”
“Booming. Not profitable, exactly, but booming. It’s what passes for fun for me.”
“A serious hobby,” said Carter Tarkington. “Scares me.”
“Me too, sometimes, but I have gotten to the point that I break even plus a little. I enjoy the diversion, and I especially like the people with whom I work.”
“That’s the best kind of toy,” agreed Hyrum.
“I know you’re busy, Dr. Norcroft. Perhaps we should get down to the business at hand–the Evangelina Juarez case.”
“I suppose we must. I can’t imagine what there is about the case that could take any time. This looks like a pure Paul Bel Geddes harassment case to me,” complained Sybil.
“We both agree completely, but we have to defend you anyway. I’m afraid that “ridiculous” is not an accepted defense, although I think that would be completely appropriate for the present case,” Carter sympathized.
“Tell me the medical facts in this case, Dr. Norcroft. Tell me exactly what happened.”
Sybil went over the history in detail, refreshing her memory from the F.A.C.S.imiles of the chart that the attorneys had provided. She did not editorialize or attempt to add defensive arguments.
Carter was thoughtful.
“There is something I don’t understand, Doctor. How can someone lose the ability to speak English altogether and yet retain full facility with Spanish, her native language? What mechanism could be in play?”
“Occasionally, we see people, almost always older stroke victims, who have profound loss of speech, who lose the ability to use a second language. They retain something of their native language, an older and more ingrained speech usage. Virtually always these people have severe loss of speech in that native language as well as the complete or virtually complete loss of the secondarily acquired language.”
“Ever see a patient who lost speech just like this claim by Mrs. Juarez?”
“Ever hear or read of a case like this?”
“No, but then, stroke is not really my specialty.”
“Of course not, that’s in the purview of medical neurology, isn’t that right, Doctor?”
“Much more than surgical neurology.”
“I presumed as much; so, I had the office staff run a Med-Line search for English language articles in the medical literature on strokes and language retention, particularly preservation or loss of a second language. You could help us with a quick review of the synopses of the articles provided, but our experts could not find a single instance in the literature for the past five years.”
“Could be further back or in another language,” Sybil offered. “I’m just playing the Devil’s Advocate, here.”
“I’m ahead of you. I had the service extend the search back twenty years and to include the world’s literature, irrespective of language. That is going to be a long project, especially if we have to get any significant number of articles translated. I’ll keep you posted.”
“Suffice it to say that, if such cases exist, they have to be vanishingly rare,” said Sybil.
“So why is Mrs. Juarez unable to speak English?”
“Seems obvious to me,” asserted Sybil.
“Are you absolutely certain that the woman was able to speak English before the events of this case?”
“I presume that we won’t have trouble finding people to testify to that fact?”
“You could start with her own family. Hospital personnel and my office personnel can certainly verify that she was able to speak English quite satisfactorily.”
“Then the next concern relates to why this sweet, and presumably previously passionate woman, is no longer able to have sex with her husband.”
“Simple,” Sybil declared without hesitation. “Either she was always frigid, and nothing has changed, or she and her husband are lying. I tend to lean towards the latter explanation.”
“Short of planting a TV camera in the couple’s bedroom, we are going to run into some difficulty proving that she is still providing consortium as the quaint old legal phrase so euphemistically puts it,” said Hyrum Willis.
“And we probably won’t have to,” responded Carter Tarkington. “All we have to do is establish that Evangelina Juarez is a liar. We need to come up with witnesses who will testify that they have heard her speaking English since her release from the hospital. A jury or arbitration panel can extrapolate from such a demonstration of her willingness to prevaricate in one major aspect of the case that she is lying about the whole business.”
“As she most certainly is,” said Sybil.
Carter looked at the junior attorney. Hyrum grinned at his superior.
“Do I detect an assignment pour moi?”
“One of several. Follow-up on the expanded Med-Line search as well as finding witnesses who have heard our plaintiff speaking the King’s English, despite her claims to the contrary that she is unable to do so. But right now, we have to get over to Stewart, Bel Geddes, and Loughlins’ for the deposition,” said Carter.
Sybil knew that this was going to be a different kind of deposition from the outset of questioning. Bel Geddes stepped into his conference room on the dot of the appointed hour. He was all business and displayed none of his usual adolescent preliminaries.
“Are you familiar with the process and conduct of a deposition, Dr. Norcroft?”
“You understand that your testimony here is exactly the same as if you were appearing in court, and can be taken before a jury in a trial at some future time and presented as evidence?”
“Have you any questions about the deposition procedure, before I begin the formal questions, Doctor?”
“Good. Then state and spell your full name for the record, please.”
Sybil did so.
“In the interests of time the plaintiff will stipulate to the information contained in the doctor’s curriculum vitae, if that is all right with you, counselor.”
“So stipulated,” said Tarkington.
“Anything to add to your CV, Dr. Norcroft?”
“Why did you cause a chemical toxin to be instilled in Evangelina Juarez’s arteries, Dr. Norcroft?”
“Will you look at this order from the chart, Doctor?
Sybil perused her order for the performance of the head and neck angiogram. She looked up.
“Is that your handwriting?”
“Would you read the order, please?”
“‘Head and neck angio. Stat’.”
“Does that procedure not involve the instillation of iodine compounds?”
“And is iodine not toxic?”
“It is the accepted contrast agent for angiography, has been for close to a hundred years.”
“Pardon me, Doctor, but that is a non sequitur. I asked you if iodine is toxic or not.”
“Not as a contrast agent.”
“What if you put a drop in a person’s eye?”
“That’s not the same thing.”
“Please just answer the question I put to you, Doctor. I thought you understood the deposition process. Shall I go over it again for you, Doctor?”
“Objection. You are badgering the witness, counselor. None of that is called for.”
“I apologize if I have trammeled the lady doctor’s sensitivities. I’ll rephrase. Dr. Norcroft, would iodine cause a burn if it were to be placed in a person’s eye?”
“Is that medically more probable than not?”
Sybil sighed. This was medical nonsense, but she could see where it was heading.
“Yes, it is more probable than not that there would be a burn to the sensitive tissues of the eye.”
“How about the vagina?”
“That is not my field of expertise.”
“You are a medical doctor, are you not? I believe your fine medical school education and your internship at a prestigious hospital as outlined in your CV have qualified you for a medical license in this state to practice medicine and surgery. That should not be outside your general medical education or knowledge. Would the lining of the vagina be burned by instillation of iodine?”
“I suppose it might.”
“Have you ever heard of iodine contrast material having a toxic effect when placed in a patient’s arterial system?”
“Do you mean an allergic response?”
Her attorney flashed her a look. She was responding like a teacher instead of a deponent. She had opened another avenue of exploration for the opposing attorney inadvertently, and she knew it. She gave herself a small mental kick in the backside.
“We’ll get to that subsequently. My question relates to direct chemical toxicity, to a burn if you will, of the inside of arteries.”
“There are cases of complications due to arteriography that seem to be best explained by the development of an acute toxic arteritis from iodized contrast, yes, Sir.”
“Thank you, Dr. Norcroft. Now let’s shift to the allergic response to iodine contrast. Does that ever happen, in your experience, or from what you have learned from your study of the medical literature?”
“Yes, that happens,” answered Sybil grudgingly. “But…”
“Thank you, Doctor. You’ve answered my question. What kind of problems result from such allergic reactions?”
Sybil enumerated the occurrence of skin itching, tracheal swelling and difficulty breathing, and anaphylaxis.
“Could a person suffer permanent damage, even death, from such an allergic reaction?”
“Yes, that could occur, but let me…”
“Again, thank you, Doctor. Your answer is sufficient.”
Sybil bristled at being peremptorily cut short. She needed to expand. When she looked at Carter, he shook his head. She could not figure out why he was not jumping in to help her. She sank back into her chair, feeling ill done by.
“Did you ever see anyone suffer permanent brain damage, permanent neurological injury from an allergic event?”
“Yes, but that was not…”
“Doctor, a simple yes or no will suffice. When your lawyer questions you, perhaps he will ask questions more to your liking. Right now, I ask the questions, and you answer the questions I ask. That’s how the game is played. Have we an understanding on that fundamental?”
“I suppose I do, but there is more to be said about the subject of allergy and toxicity than your questions bring out. Certainly more to be said about the allergic reaction and toxicity that your client allegedly suffered, to be on point for this particular case.”
Bel Geddes grinned at her, and Sybil knew that she had seriously misspoken. She ran her response through her mind in hot flashes of realization. She had implied that Evangelina Juarez had suffered both allergic and toxic reactions from the contrast that she had received during the angiogram, and Sybil had not intended to say or imply any such thing. She was angry at herself, felt duped. She fought to regain her composure.
“Yes, let’s ask more about the toxic and allergic injuries that Mrs. Juarez suffered.”
“I did not say that,” Sybil protested.
Her voice had risen, and her face was red. She clenched her jaw to get hold of herself.
“I thought I heard you say that she did. Shall we have the court reporter read back my question and your response, Doctor?”
“That won’t be necessary. I would like to explain my answer.”
“I’m satisfied. I would like to move on to the last time you saw Mrs. Juarez.”
“Objection. The doctor has every right to explain her answer.”
Carter Tarkington’s voice was level and quiet. Sybil thought if was about time he came up with an objection. She used the interruption to collect her wits.
“Of course,” said Bel Geddes with syrupy sweet condescension.
“What I meant to say…”
Sybil went on to try and extricate herself from her verbal blunder. She knew that her explanation was sounding like an excuse. Her silly and careless outburst was going to have the ring of truth of a Freudian slip. Nothing she was saying now could erase her statement from the permanent record.
Paul Bel Geddes loved to see the haughty society doctor squirm. He, too, realized what a gift she had just given him. The words of the Rubaiyat flitted through his mind as he watched the woman he so despised twist in the wind. “The moving finger writes, and having writ, moves on. Nor all your piety and wit can alter half a line, nor all your tears wash out a word of it.” He had to suppress a mounting inner merriment.
When it came Tarkington’s turn to question his client, he asked only a few questions regarding the routine character of Sybil’s evaluation and treatment of Evangelina Juarez, the stress was obviously on how standard the care had been. He queried her about the nature of strokes, but stayed away from any discussion of unusual losses of speech, of possible malingering, and made no attempt to rehabilitate Sybil on the issue of allergic and toxic effects of iodized contrast media.
When Tarkington’s turn was over, the hospital’s defense attorney asked four or five questions about her opinion as to whether the hospital had performed up to community standards of medical care and if she had any criticisms of the hospital, of the radiology department, of the radiologist who had done the arteriogram, or of the nursing staff. Sybil answered a crisp no to each question. Bel Geddes had no further questions, and the deposition came to an end.
Sybil was furious. She waited until she and her attorneys were well away from Bel Geddes’s office, then she let go.
“Carter, I am very displeased with your performance today. I’m none too happy with my own, but were you asleep in there? I mean, I expected a little help when I got into trouble.”
“I thought you were doing fine, Dr. Norcroft. I did not want it to appear that you were somehow confused or were incompetent. I think that you held your own, all in all.”
“That’s baloney. I all but told him that Mrs. Juarez had been injured by either an allergic reaction or by toxicity from the contrast material! I needed your help. Right then! You didn’t even get into that in your questions. We needed to explain that, in my humble opinion. I am angry. I don’t mind telling you!”
“Dr. Norcroft. You are a fine neurosurgeon. I will defer to you every time on medical subjects. I am a very experienced medical malpractice defense attorney. I would like you to have confidence in that. There is a difference between your substantive medical defense, and my handling of the legal issues. Think about it for a minute. I did not want to share with the opposing counsel our defense. Make him produce his own work product. Doctors are used to conveying information, to teaching. We were not there to teach that lame brain. His very purpose in deposing you was to get a free peek at our defense. I went out of my way to keep him from getting that insight. You know he’s wrong about the contrast: I know he is. It is very much in our favor if he does not realize that he’s wrong. I would much rather he pursued an inaccurate line of reasoning and wasted his time and efforts producing a case that we can shred–at the appropriate time.”
He gave her a stern avuncular look.
Sybil returned a sheepish glance.
“I stand corrected. Sorry I sounded off. Bel Geddes can get to me, even after all of this experience with him. I will have to exercise better control. Sorry, Carter. No real offense intended. I’ll go home and eat a plate of crow.”
“No offense taken. Let’s skip the crow dinner and go out and have pheasant under glass or some other more appropriate fowl or fish at Thomasa’s. It’ll be a write-off for the firm.”
Now that her stomach had stopped churning, Sybil realized that she was famished.
“Good idea. I always hated crow, anyway.”
Carter Tarkington and his staff, noting the inordinate passage of time with no activity in the van der Hoef vs JNMH, Sybil Norcroft, M.D., PhD, F.A.C.S., et.al. case, began to think that Paul Bel Geddes had decided to let it go. Carter called Dr. Norcroft.
“Sybil,” he said as soon as she picked up the phone receiver, “I hate to be the bearer of good news, especially only tentative good news, but, here at our shop, we’re beginning to think that old Bats in the Belfrey Geddes is going to punt on the van der Hoef case. He has yet to get an expert witness as is required by law, he hasn’t deposed a single witness, and he hasn’t even formally defined an injury suffered by his client or a cause of injury on your part except his puny original allegation that you caused him pain and suffering by your operation.”
“I would very much like this matter to be removed officially and finally, Carter. Can’t we just give the man a call or write him a letter to remind him that he should let us go if he has no intention of pursuing the action?”
“I don’t think that is a very wise course with a schlock like Paul. He likes to keep cases going for the annoyance value, if for nothing else. He would rather nettle you than almost anything else, I am sure. He thinks he owes you big time for the McNeely case and the Jason Turner defeat that he believes you engineered. I would rather count on Paul’s general tendency towards being scatter-brained and forgetful and hope that the van der Hoef binding arbitration case will just die a lingering but deserved and sure death. If we remind him, it will more likely than not bring the case to the forefront of his consciousness and get him started all over again. I advise letting sleeping dogs lie.”
“Good choice of characterizations,” Sybil muttered.
Gerrit van der Hoef had not forgotten. He still had to work at the job he hated, not one of the five or six rotten excuses for doctors he had seen in the past four years had had the decency to give him his medical retirement. They were as unfeeling and cold about it as was the company. Not too surprising since they worked for the company, when you got right down to it. The big money from the company or from state comp bought their opinions. The quacks.
For the hundred and forty-second time–he kept records–van der Hoef called his do-nothing attorney, Paul Bel Geddes.
“Mr. Bel Geddes, this is Gerrit.”
“How are you Mr. van der Hoef? I was just getting a letter ready to send you on the status of your case against the hospital and Dr. Norcroft.” Bel Geddes had forgotten his client’s name until his ever efficient secretary held the file up for him to read.
“Yeah? And what’s goin’ on lately?”
“I’m sending off a demand for a deposition for the doctor, Mr. van der Hoef, she’s been slippery as an eel. I have had a terrible time getting her to my office to answer for what she did to you.”
“Big doctors are bettern the law, can’t be touched, isn’t that about it, Mr. Bel Geddes?”
“They think they are, but I guarantee you, Mr. van der Hoef, that we’ll get her sooner or later. I am writing to the judge this week, and I am going to write to the bar association to file a formal complaint against that attorney of hers, Tarkington. He’s used every trick in the book and a few I never even heard of to keep the doc from having to appear. Don’t give up. We’ll get them eventually, Mr. van der Hoef.”
“How about that expert witness of yours, that Dr. Dredge? You got him committed on the case?”
“It’s Drenge, Dr. Drenge. And, you bet, he’s the best. I use him all the time.”
“But has he written up his opinion about how Norcroft butchered up my back?”
“I don’t want him to do that. The defense can get at that opinion eventually. I want to save him for later, not let the defense prepare a rebuttal to his charges until the very end. Strategy. You have to be patient, trust me on this.”
Bel Geddes made a mental note to have his staff hunt down Dr. Drenge. The last address Bel Geddes had was the Betty Ford Clinic in California. The man was a great plaintiff’s witness, absolutely without scruples or collegial affinity. His only loyalty was to money, and Bel Geddes had provided the aging, nonpracticing, orthopedist with plenty of that over the years that they had worked as a team. Lately, the attorney had become concerned about Drenge’s drinking and cocaine usage. In addition, Bel Geddes was beginning to think Drenge was suffering from a bit of judicial overexposure.
“He’ll come through for us, make the case. He’s great. Remind me to get the two of you together sometime, kind of get the team spirit going.”
“Yeah, I’d like that. Sometime soon.”
“I’ll keep you posted, Mr. van der Hoef, trust me.”
One of Bel Geddes’s more voluptuous secretaries entered his office just as the attorney uttered his honeyed promise. She rolled her eyes and gave Bel Geddes a horsey little laugh. He made a shooing motion. She teetered out of the room on her spike heels. He wondered why he kept the woman; she couldn’t type. He directed a short self-deprecating laugh at his personnel management deficiencies.
“I do, Mr. Bel Geddes. I do. “van der Hoef was saying, “Also how’s the medical disability case coming? I get nothing but the run around from workman’s comp.”
“Slow plodding business. You know that better than anybody. The company has found every doctor it could to say that you are an Olympic class athlete, able to outdo Hercules on the job. The government is stingy, slow, and incompetent. What can I say?”
“Keep trying. Do somethin’, okay?”
“You can count on me. Keep in touch, Mr. van der Hoef. I have another client coming in now. I’ll get out a copy of my letter to you. Hang in there.”
“As if I had any other choice. Thanks for all the work.”
“Think nothing of it, Mr. van der Hoef. I’ll get my reward as soon as we get that multi-million dollar jury award. Keep that in mind to keep up your spirits. Until next time, bye.”
Bel Geddes had his secretary fire off a notice of a deposition to Carter Tarkington. He knew that he was going to be in trial on the date that he listed, but they did not have to know that yet. The letter would keep van der Hoef off his back for a little while longer. For good measure, he sent van der Hoef a copy of a very stern letter he composed to the state bar complaining of the “egregious judicial misconduct” on the part of Carter Tarkington. He carefully saw to it that the potentially libelous letter was never sent to either the bar or Tarkington. van der Hoef did not have to know that either.
Sybil received her notice of taking her deposition scheduled for two month’s hence. The timing was abysmal. The date selected was exactly on the day that she was scheduled to speak in the American Feminist’s Union Convocation held in Caesar’s Palace in Las Vegas. She was the president-elect, and next to the future speech to be given by her as the outgoing president a year from now enumerating her year of triumphs against the patriarchy, this was easily the most important public address of her career.
As soon as she received the notification of the scheduled deposition, she made a frantic call to Carter Tarkington.
“Carter, this is totally unacceptable.”
“What is, Dr. Norcroft?”
“Bel Geddes’s latest ploy. He has purposely scheduled my deposition on the day I have to give the most important speech of my life. I can’t figure out how he knows my schedule well enough to be able to torment me like this.”
She felt hysterical. She hoped she did not sound as hysterical as she felt.
“Could you be just the least bit paranoid on the subject of Paul Bel Geddes?” Carter chided her gently.
“Even paranoids get persecuted sometimes, Carter. This looks like one of those times to me.”
“I wouldn’t put it past Paul. He is the master harrier. I’ll get in touch with him. He didn’t consult any of us about the timing. The date he proposes does not fit our schedule either. I think we can get a change.”
“Please, Carter. I must give that speech. Bel Geddes has had years to set up this deposition. He does not have to have it on my special day You can’t let him get away with this.”
“I won’t. Take it easy. It’s my job to keep you from worrying or from being harassed until the last possible moment and to the least degree. I’ll take care of it.”
“Thanks Carter. You can’t imagine what a load that takes off me. Let me know what happens.”
Tarkington gritted his teeth in anger at his nemesis after he got off the line with Dr. Norcroft. The program of intimidation by annoyance was getting very old. Nothing he said or did fazed the insensitive legal hack, including formal complaints to the bar. Paul Bel Geddes had a Teflon outer shell when it came to complaints or criticisms. Nothing ever seemed to stick.
Carter buzzed his secretary.
“Carol, get Paul Bel Geddes on the horn for me if you can. Tell him it’s urgent.”
He was in luck. For once, he did not have to play telephone tag with his arch opponent.
“Hello, my friend, what can I do for you?” came Bel Geddes’s annoyingly cheery voice.
“We need to talk about the Norcroft deposition.”
There was a pause.
“Refresh me, Carter. What case are we deposing the eminent ball breaker for this time?”
“van der Hoef.”
“Ah, yes, poor man, poor victim. Let’s see,”
Carter could hear the shuffling of pages on Bel Geddes’s end.
“That’s the arbitration case–depo for the 30th of November–still two months off. That should be plenty of time for you to teach the good doctor her lines.”
He added a ripple of ingratiatory laughter.
Carter gritted his teeth. Half a dozen more calls to Paul Bel Geddes, and he would have his teeth worn down to the nubbins.
“Regrettably, Paul, that is not a good time. Both the defendant and I have other long ago scheduled commitments that neither of us can get out of. You’ll have to come up with another date and see if it is mutually acceptable.”
“Don’t think that will be possible, my friend. I am in trial for several weeks before and several weeks after that date. Big cases that have been on the dockets for nearly ten years, both of them. ‘Fraid I can’t accommodate you, Carter, much as I would like to.”
Carter half expected to hear the shedding of crocodile tears.
“There is no way the doctor can be there. She is committed to give the keynote address for the convention of the organization of which she is president on the very day that you have the deposition scheduled.”
“What an unfortunate coincidence.”
No one had ever sounded more sincere.
“It’s more than that, Paul. She simply can’t be there.”
“You mean that the famous ball breaker’s FemmaNazi speech is more important than the wheels of justice, Carter? Come now, where does your allegiance reside?”
“With my client, Paul, where it should. You know perfectly well you can change the date. Let’s stop sparring. This stuff gets old, makes everybody’s life more difficult and does nothing to further your case.”
“Surely you don’t think this scheduling problem is of my making? Can I help the remarkable and inconvenient coincidence of Dr. Norcroft’s leap into demagoguery and the requirements of justice?”
“Paul, cut the crap. You gave yourself away when you started talking about her giving a feminist speech. Don’t play the innocent with me, it ill becomes you. You set the date knowing the extreme conflict that would result for my client. Admit that you’ve been caught and rectify the situation.”
“I will admit to no such chicanery. I’d as soon confess to the high crime of barratry, perish forbid the very possibility. In the interests of collegial fidelity, I will make every attempt to get the date changed. This is just for you, Carter, since our friendship is so long standing.”
Carter Tarkington could recall only a decade-long fractious enmity between the two attorneys. Friendship, ha, he thought.
“Thank you, Paul. We will look forward to hearing from you at your earliest possible opportunity,” he said
“You can count on me, Carter. Good-bye now.”
“Thank you and good-bye, Paul.”
It was six weeks before Tarkington heard from Bel Geddes again. There remained only two weeks before the deadline for the deposition and for Sybil’s speech. The response from the plaintiff’s attorney was a terse letter:
With regret I have to inform you that, despite all my efforts, I could not change the date for the upcoming deposition of your client, Sybil Norcroft, M.D. I will be in court and could not make the slightest change in that scheduling. Judge Devereaux reminded me of the scheduling crunch owing to the ever increasing number of cases being filed and being taken all the way to court. You defense attorneys will have to accept your fair share of the blame. Your clients commit actionable offenses, you defend them and their money against the poor victims hoping that the plaintiffs will give up in despair owing to the terrible long wait for justice, and your side of the room was responsible for the enactment of laws requiring financial sanctions against attorneys who must have continuances scheduled less than one month from trial date. Sow the wind, reap the whirlwind.
Convey my regards and my apologies for the system to your client. I remain,
- Bel Geddes
Carter snarled incoherently at the letter. He was sitting at his desk going through his in-basket. He rang his secretary.
“Carol. I do not want to be disturbed for the next hour except for a national emergency.”
The attorney then quietly hissed out every cursing invective he knew or had ever heard. At a pace of clear enunciation, he was able to go a full five minutes without a single repetition. He went back over the oaths and swearings several times at ranting pitch to make sure that he had not left out anything useful. He then placed his fingertips on his temples, closed his eyes, and meditated in detail on the myriad ways of killing there were. It was very therapeutic.
Carter could not bring himself to call Sybil Norcroft directly. Instead he mailed her a copy of Bel Geddes’s letter and attached a short dictation of his own.
Dear Dr. Norcroft,
The letter from Paul Bel Geddes, Esq. speaks for itself. I regret the inconvenience that I know you will suffer as a result. I doubt that he made much of an effort to get a continuance, but it is his deposition, and there is little or nothing we can do. I look forward to a satisfactory resolution of this action. Continue to maintain your equanimity in anticipation of that future result.
Sybil Norcroft’s command of English vernacular was adequate for most occasions, but she did not feel up to the challenge posed by Paul Bel Geddes’s impertinent letter. Instead of locking herself in her office for a cathartic hour of cursing, she went to the gym and punished herself with aerobics and a body bag with her full repertoire of hand and foot attack measures. The bombastic exertions were augmented by a good private cry born more of frustration than sadness that seemed to be even more beneficial than the punching and kicking.
She dejectedly called the program director for the American Feminist’s Union.
“Mazzie, this is Sybil Norcroft. I have bad news. I have to appear for a deposition at the very hour that I am slated to speak at the union’s convocation in Las Vegas. I have done everything in my power to get out of it, but I can’t.”
“You mean you are going to dump us, Sybil? At this late date?!”
“No. I mean, I have no choice!”
“It’s impossible to get a quality speaker now. Anyone worthwhile would be insulted, and anyone else would be unable to carry it off on short notice. Have you any idea what kind of bind this places us in, Sybil? I mean, really?”
“Of course I do. In my own defense, I have to tell you that this deposition was arranged by a woman hating chauvinist of an attorney who did it on purpose to get under my skin. I hate to admit how successful he has been.”
“Well, sister, that being the case, we will just have to come up with a solution to beat the patriarchy one more time. I have a thought. I’ll get back to you. Illegitimi non carborundum, girl!”
“You, too,” Sybil said with no enthusiasm. “Let me know when you have a plan. My mind is no good anymore. I am a blank.”
“I’ll be in touch. Bye.”
The reply followed in two days in the form of a letter:
Dear President-Elect Norcroft,
The committee was devastated when they heard of your inability to appear in person at the convocation to present your speech. We are all profoundly disappointed. A compromise was suggested. We will arrange for a professional video photographer to tape your speech and will play it for the sisters in Las Vegas at the scheduled time for the President-Elect’s address. As you no doubt realize, this will not be as stirring as your presence, and there will probably be those who regard you as one of those prima donna movie actresses who disdains the Academy Awards. That won’t do you any political good in the Union, but it is the best we can come up with at such short notice. We will do all we can to convince the sisters that you are just another victim of the old-boy network trying to keep us down.
Please communicate with Agnes Cannon who is in charge of technical arrangements for the convocation. She will arrange all the details for the taping. Keep your chin up.
With sisterly regard,
Mary Margaret “Mazzie” Quinn
It took all that Sybil could do to appear confident and upbeat in her video presentation. She studiously avoided laying the blame on the attorney who had so cruelly disrupted her important plans. Instead, she concentrated her message on the great strides that women had made in the past ten years and the concrete plans the Union had formulated to cope with the specific issues facing women in the near future–most important of which was to get their soul sister, Claire Lund-Gardner, nominated as the Democrat’s choice for the presidential race next year. In private she railed at Paul Bel Geddes for destroying her own chances of being on the short list for vice-presidential candidates for Lund-Gardner to consider.
Sybil prepared assiduously for the deposition. She was determined to defeat Bel Geddes in that face-to-face match, whatever it took. She had all but memorized the chart. She and Carter and his associate, Hyrum Willis, went over every issue and nuance in the chart. Hyrum played the Devil’s Advocate in a day long grilling that exposed every conceivable flaw in the defense case. He tried to rattle Sybil with personal jibes and professional innuendoes.
Forty-eight hours before the time when she was to go head to head with Paul Bel Geddes, and she was fully primed to attack, the plaintiff’s attorney sent the following letter to Carter Tarkington by courier:
Carter Tarkington, Esquire:
I have encountered a totally unexpected and overriding scheduling conflict that grew out of the trial in which I am now participating. I have informed all parties that, due to circumstances beyond my control, I have been obliged to seek a continuance in the deposition of Sybil Norcroft, M.D. in the matter of van der Hoef vs JNMH, et. al binding arbitration. With the greatest of courtesy on the part of the court reporter and my staff, they have agreed to the setting of a new date at as yet an undetermined time. Thank you for your understanding.
I trust that the timeliness of this letter will permit you to resume your previous schedules. I am sure that the doctor will be pleased to be able to attend to the duties she had previously scheduled, after all. Give her my personal regards.
Paul Bel Geddes, Esq.
Attorney at Law
Upon receipt of this letter from opposing counsel, Carter Tarkington was unable to measure up to the demand for verbal catharsis required. He only muttered a few weak imprecations to himself and with reluctance dictated a note to Sybil Norcroft. It was too late in the day for the letter to reach Sybil, even with priority mail in the same city.
She received Carter’s missive eighteen hours before she would have had to appear for the deposition, or, if her own plans had been able to be in force, from the time when she was to have given her nationally televised address to the women of the United States, and to many countries of the world.
Sybil Norcroft, M.D., F.A.C.S.
Dear Dr. Norcroft,
Please find enclosed a F.A.C.S.imile of a letter from Paul Bel Geddes, the plaintiff’s attorney in the van der Hoef case. The letter was delivered today by courier. I will try and get this note and the copy of Mr. Bel Geddes’s letter to you by priority mail today, but I fear that it is too late in the day to accomplish that. I suppose the timing was intentional, another calculated slight by our mutual opponent. Do not let him get you down, that is his fondest wish.
Sybil’s first thought was one of momentary elation. Now she would be able to deliver her speech in person. Then she soberly admitted that she was unprepared. She had concentrated so long and hard on the deposition and the fight with Bel Geddes that she was unprepared to make a convincing delivery of her material. She would have to stand up in front of the world-wide audience and read her talk. That would be worse than having the video tape presentation. Worse, she could not take advantage of the temporary reprieve and attend the convocation. Advance program changes had told of her “personal crisis” that prevented her from speaking in person. She would look like a nitwit if she now tried to reverse her decision. Sybil decided to take one of her horses out for a wild gallop along the tranquil by-ways of the country-side to purge herself of the corrosive hatred she felt roiling up from her guts.
Even that small measure of comfort could not be, Sybil developed the worst headache of her life and had to undergo the ignominy of being taken to the emergency room for an injection of Demerol, like the crocks in her practice whom she so despised.
Paul Bel Geddes dictated his last letter regarding the scheduled deposition of Sybil Norcroft, M.D.. This one was to his client, Gerrit van der Hoef:
Mr. Gerrit van der Hoef
Dear Mr. van der Hoef,
Despite my efforts, Dr. Norcroft and her attorney were able to postpone the taking of her testimony in a deposition. It had something to do with her giving a speech to a group of feminists, I understand. Although this is a set-back, it is no more than we might have expected. We are up against a very clever attorney and a wealthy client who intend to fight us at every turn. I remain on your side, and together we will eventually win out against these people. Do not lose heart.
Also I was unable to get the court to change the status of the case from a binding arbitration to a jury trial. It is a system stacked against poor plaintiffs, but we will keep on, and we will win in the end.
Paul Bel Geddes, Esq.
Attorney at Law
Seven months later, Sybil found a routing message in her in box to call Carter Tarkington. It was almost five in the afternoon when she discovered the note. She called her attorney’s office.
“Hello, law offices,” the receptionist greeted.
Sybil wondered why law firms always announced themselves that way instead of giving out the names of the partners.
“Hello. This is Sybil Norcroft. I am returning Mr. Tarkington’s call. Is he still in the office?”
Carter’s voice came on the line after a brief pause.
“Hello, Dr. Norcroft. I wanted to let you know that the company will be sending you a letter to tell you about a meeting of their board that they want you and me to attend.”
“What kind of meeting would the board of DPIC be having that would involve me?” Sybil asked.
“You know that Doctor’s Protection Indemnity Cooperative got itself a new CEO this year, and that led to an almost complete changeover at the top levels of management and a pretty significant change in operating philosophy. Where they used to want to be known as the country’s toughest malpractice protection company by fighting every case fang and claw and to attract business from more and more doctors by assuring them that the company would not sell them out by settling minor cases or very winnable cases that would then give the physician a harmful entry in his or her national malpractice registry listing, a very public piece of information. Since the changeover DPIC is more bottom line oriented. I mean, they are weighing the cost of defense much more heavily than they used to.”
“And the doctor’s reputation take the hindmost, isn’t that about it?”
“Only to a degree. This is just a shift in the wind, not a black and white or draconian policy set in granite. Anyhow, I have been told that the purpose of the meeting is to air the salient facts about several pending cases. They want you and me to be there to discuss the Evangelina Juarez case. This is the first year they’ve done this, so I’m not quite sure what to expect. I’ve only been to a couple of these.”
“I can’t imagine what question there could be about the Juarez case. If ever there was a case that should have a summary judgment in the defendant’s favor and be dismissed as a frivolous suit, it’s that one,” Sybil reacted testily.
“The last case I presented before the board concerned the question of whether or not the physician was willing to stay the whole distance and to cooperate with DPIC and the defense attorneys through the entire gamut of depositions and trial. Most likely that’s the question here. I feel the same way you do about the merits of the Juarez case.”
“So what did your doctor client have to say? Did he agree to fight the good fight?”
“Interestingly, no. He wanted out of the whole thing as quickly and painlessly as possible. He was nervous and angry about being sued, felt like it was just another rotten thing that came with the territory of a medical career, like HMOs, capitation contracts, nondisclosure to patients of alternate, more expensive treatment options and the like. He didn’t care if a loss got on his record. Every doctor had a rap sheet now, he said, so what? It’s just the price of doing business, and he wanted to get to his business of doing cosmetic surgery. That’s evidently one of the reasons the company wants to have these decision making meetings. Doctors are less inclined to fight than ever before, they seem to have lost their spirit with the plethora of suits filed, suits lost, time away from work, public humiliation of the explicit criticism of themselves. My plastic surgeon told me that he just didn’t care any more. There was no justice for physicians or for plaintiffs in general any longer. After three or four terms of ultraliberal, trial lawyer supported presidents and congresses, the atmosphere is so poisoned that many doctors think the justice system has nothing to offer them. They would just as soon cave-in early and get the misery over with. The insurance companies are inclined to agree. It’s cheaper for them to pay a moderate settlement up front than to bear the costs of defense and to have to take their chances with the caprice of juries.
“I’ve gone on and on, here. You asked me for the time, and I told you how to make a clock. Sorry.”
Carter gave a little embarrassed laugh.
“Not me. Carter, I will fight the Evangelina Juarez case to the bitter end, no matter what. I will never quit, no matter how much crap Bel Geddes can heap on us. The company doesn’t have to worry about me caving-in like those weenies you just described.
“I did nothing wrong. They faked the whole business of her being unable to speak English any longer and that she is unable to make love any more because of some completely unscientific claim about x-ray contrast. They sued the wrong person. Not only is it inappropriate to sue me–the contrast agent manufacturers would be the logical target, I would think–but also I am not going to roll over even if that is the current defense fad.”
Her voice was heated. She could feel her blood pressure and pulse rate going up and her face becoming warmer and pinker. She did not dislike the feeling.
“Hold that thought, Sybil. Let’s find out what the board has in mind. Maybe we’re getting agitated for nothing. Who knows? We might find allies in the company and get some ideas about how to handle this stupid suit.”
“I’d like to think so Carter. I’ll be there with bells on.”
“All right. I’ll see you then. Oh, I didn’t even tell you when the meeting is going to be held, I don’t think. It’s next Friday.”
“Friday the thirteenth, to be precise. Do you think that someone is trying to tell us something?”
“I hope not. Think on the bright side, Dr. Norcroft. Maybe, you and Hyrum and I can grab a bite to eat at some pricey place afterwards compliments of the DPIC board. They’re supposed to foot the bill for the attorneys’ and doctors’ out-of-pocket expenses for the meeting. I can make myself useful by working on that. Are you up on the case well enough to proceed now, or do you need a refresher before we brave the lions in their den?”
“I’m okay. Suspicious, but okay. I’ll see you on Friday, Carter. And yes, to the dinner.”
“Okay, so long. Hang in there.”
“Don’t worry about me. Bye.”
“Good-bye, Dr. Norcroft.”
On Friday, the thirteenth, Sybil joined Carter Tarkington and Hyrum Willis, and the three of them sat on an uncomfortable Danish Modern bench outside the DPIC boardroom. They were fifteen minutes early, and the previous meeting extended fifteen minutes late. In the half hour interim they talked about anything but the Juarez case by unspoken agreement. Sybil told the two men about the National Soft Gait Horse Show in which her Tennessee Walking Horse, Bai Walker, had taken best in his class. She told them how much the Mexican families who worked with her to breed and care for and show her champions meant to her, and how that led to somewhat mixed feelings about Evangelina Juarez.
Carter Tarkington shyly told the other two about his secret passion, that had led to his greatest personal success of the year. He had placed fourth in the National Poker Playoffs in Las Vegas. The winnings and prizes had just about covered his losses for the five previous years of competition when he made it to the Nationals but failed to place.
Hyrum had climbed Annapurna I.
The board room door opened and a clutch of well dressed men and women exited, conferring intensely and paying no attention to the three waiting supplicants. An imperious secretary followed closely at the heels of the departing group of dark suited men and women.
“Mr. Tarkington? Dr. Norcroft?”
Carter and Sybil nodded. Hyrum was used to sitting second seat and being ignored.
The secretary looked at Hyrum.
“Willis. Hyrum Willis.”
“Oh, yes,” she said as an afterthought. “Won’t you please come in. We’re running a bit late. I hope you don’t mind if we move right along. We have some refreshments, perhaps we will be able to take time for them at a break sometime in the evening.”
Sybil, Carter, and Hyrum dutifully filed in behind the severely dressed secretary and took their seats as she directed them. Sybil sat alone at the end of a table with Carter on the right side and Hyrum on the left. The three of them faced an array of about twenty people who were watching them fixedly from their seats at the sides of a long conference table arranged at right angles to that of the three subjects of the meeting.
Directly opposite Sybil at the far end of the long cherry wood conference table sat a distinguished white haired man with an expensive sun tan. As soon as Sybil and the two lawyers were situated, he addressed them.
“Thank you for coming. I am Max Webster, CEO of DPIC. We are here to discuss DPIC file, EJ v. SN, et. al. 5-4-13. In a moment we would like to hear from you, Dr. Norcroft and then from your attorneys. First, in the interests of brevity, our case administrator, Beverly Clements, will give a synopsis of the case. Beverly.”
“Yes, Sir. Evangelina Juarez, through her attorney, Paul Bel Geddes,”
There was a slight collective groan from the assembled board members of DPIC.
“Filed a malpractice action against our member, Sybil Norcroft, M.D., on four April, 2013. She claims that our member was negligent in providing care by ordering a head and neck arteriogram using iodine containing contrast media. The contrast media produced a toxic or an allergic effect that resulted in a temporary stroke with paralysis, permanent loss of the ability to speak English, selectively, and her husband claims loss of consortium. The case has been assigned to the Comptrell Court, Judge Hector Dolorosa and is defended by in-house counsel.”
The board members, most of them physicians, looked at each other with questioning glances and shrugs when they heard the skimpy facts of the claim and with shared concern when they heard that the case was going to be handled in the most ethnic sensitive area in the city by a judge who was a known Hispanic activist.
“Questions?” asked Max Webster.
“Why was the arteriogram ordered?”
A bespectacled small man wearing a bow tie put out the first question.
Sybil presumed he was the board’s neurologist.
“Let’s ask Dr. Norcroft to answer the medical questions. Let me mention that Dr. Norcroft is a neurosurgeon.”
“The study was ordered as a matter of routine, a standard approach to a problem of a TIA or an early, possibly correctable stroke. More than incidentally, I heard a left carotid bruit in this woman who was demonstrating right hemiparesis and partial aphasia. I needed to know if Mrs. Juarez had a treatable carotid lesion or if she had an intracranial vascular occlusion or even a tumor. For those reasons, I felt it eminently justified to order the angiogram.”
“Did you get proper informed consent? I understand this lady has considerable trouble with English.”
“I made every effort to do so. Her husband was present. I asked if they had any questions, and they didn’t ask any. I drew pictures of stroke victims and of the procedure. I had one of the Spanish speaking nurses translate to be on the safe side. And, as a documentable fact, she spoke English just fine at the time, thank you.”
“How do you account for the post-angiogram neurological deficit, Dr. Norcroft?”
“There was very little, and it was very transitory. I think she may have had a very minor and brief period of cerebral ischemia while the contrast coursed through the arteries and arterioles that compounded her previous ischemic damage. All of that passed. In fact, at the worst period of her neurological deficit post-angio, I gave her a placebo, and she promptly returned to neurological normalcy.”
“Except for being unable to speak English any longer.”
The neurologist made the statement as if it were a known fact.
“And she couldn’t have sex any longer,” added a burly woman, the gynecologist on the panel.
She gave a small snort of derision.
“How do you account for the permanent loss of English proficiency, Dr. Norcroft?” asked the neurologist.
“And the perfect retention of Spanish, and the loss of libido? So far as I know, there is no known neurological syndrome that would account for such a presentation. Can you enlighten me, Doctor?”
“Henright. I’m a neurologist. I am not aware of any such neurological condition either. My best bet is that she’s malingering, looking for a green poultice.”
“That sums up the case as I see it,” Sybil agreed.
“How about the legal ramifications, Mr. Tarkington?” asked the CEO.
“I’ll defer to my colleague, Hyrum Willis. He’s done the background work, and I think he has come up with some telling information for the defense.”
Hyrum took a sip of water and cleared his throat.
“We ran a Med-Line search to investigate the question that Dr. Norcroft and Dr. Henright just discussed, namely, what does the medical literature have to say regarding selective loss of a second language. We found no instances in the last fifty years of any individual ever losing all of a second language and without loss of a primary language. There were reports of loss of all language capability, loss of more secondary language than primary, and retention of only a few fragments of a primary language with complete loss of the secondary language. Because most of the articles were written in the U.S., the primary and secondary languages most often in question were English and Spanish, respectively. I want to emphasize that complete loss of a second language was uniformly accompanied by severe loss of the primary language as well, and almost always with at least some other motor or coordination or vision loss. Usually, those losses were quite marked.
“Our next line of defense was to hire a private investigation firm to see if Mrs. Juarez demonstrated any ability to speak English when she believed she was not under scrutiny by anyone who might give her away to the defense in this case. The PIs carefully interviewed acquaintances of the plaintiff. For the most part they were very reluctant to be communicative and were suspicious of the investigators as being police or especially as being from the immigration and customs service despite strong reassurances.
They were able to find a witness, remarkably enough one of Mrs. Juarez’s sisters, who is estranged from the plaintiff. She has stated a willingness to testify that the plaintiff speaks to family members in perfectly good English much of the time. Mrs. Juarez apparently is concerned that her children learn English at home; so, they won’t be at a disadvantage in school.
“The most striking piece of evidence in favor of our case is a video tape of the plaintiff arguing with her butcher. He is a stolid Korean man who seems to be unable to speak a word of Spanish despite running a shop in the barrio for a decade. Mrs. Juarez is seen and heard on the tape to make her orders in Spanish, then by pointing and making hand gestures. The Korean butcher does not even make an effort to try to understand her. Finally, in frustration, the plaintiff opened up with a tirade of abuse and demands on the butcher, a display of Latin temper, pardon me for stereotyping all of you who are of Hispanic descent. The interesting thing about the recording is that Mrs. Juarez’s angry speech is in perfectly understandable English. The recording is technically quite good. Her voice is easily recognizable.
“Lastly, the work of the private investigation team forces the defense to admit that one of the claims in this case is more than likely based on the truth. That is the claim by the husband regarding the loss of consortium.”
Sybil and Dr. Henright both started forward, incredulous at that statement.
“Their evidence is only fragmentary, as you might presume. They have, of course, not been able to monitor what goes on inside the Juarez home.”
Sybil and Dr. Henright were nonplused and shook their heads. How could the PIs support Jorge Juarez’s claim of loss of consortium without seeing the intimate relationship or lack of it with his wife, Evangelina?
“The investigators have been able to obtain rather telling footage of the plaintiff engaging in a series of sexual acts with a neighborhood bachelor in his backyard. The photographers were in a fourth story apartment overlooking the backyard tryst and have produced very detailed video coverage. There is no doubt that Mrs. Juarez is capable of passion. One could deduce from the evidence that Jorge Juarez’s claims that he does not get sex from his wife are likely to be quite true, but the imputed cause of his loss of consortium will necessarily have to be revised.”
There was brief laughter throughout the board room. Sybil felt herself relaxing. The case for the defense was so convincing that she felt as if a great weight had been lifted from her shoulders. Her attorneys looked pleased. They had kept the exculpatory evidence from her to allow her to be as pleasantly surprised as the rest of the DPIC members in the board room. She thought, however, that Carter’s pleasure and confidence seemed muted. He was not as ebullient as she thought he ought to be at this convincing evidence. She wrote her feelings off as nervousness on her part and overly strict self-control on the senior attorney’s part.
“Thank you, Mr. Willis, Mr. Tarkington. The evidence you have accumulated certainly seems to counteract the plaintiff’s attorney’s contentions. Are there any further questions of Dr. Norcroft or of Mr. Tarkington or Mr. Willis?”
The CEO looked around the room. There were no further questions.
“Would the three of you mind retiring to the waiting room while the board deliberates?”
Sybil and the attorneys picked up small platefuls of appetizers and went out into the starkly decorated anteroom. Sybil was about to ask a question of Carter Tarkington, but he moved quickly down the hall towards the bathroom and seemed not to hear her.
“A penny for your thoughts, Hyrum,” she asked.
“Seems like a slam dunk to me, Dr. Norcroft. But, you know, these malpractice cases are funny. It’s like the blind men getting their impressions by feeling the elephant. You have a medical perspective. We have a legal point of view. And the board members have the purse strings to control. They have to look at the social ramifications, what’s good for the membership and for the coffers of DPIC, and have to overlook the whole case to decide whether or not to risk their money. It ain’t over until the fat lady sings, to quote a great poet.”
“I fail to see what could move those people to want to settle, to force me to settle, can you?” Sybil asked. “No jury could fail to find our evidence compelling, overwhelming.
She was turned off by Hyrum’s unenthusiastic facial response.
“You can never be sure about juries, especially those in high ethnic areas. In the very neighborhood where the courthouse stands, where our case will be tried, the African-Americans believe that the CIA intentionally introduced crack cocaine to destroy the black community, and the Mexican-Americans accept with minimal skepticism that there is a Chupacabra–a so-called ‘Goat Sucker’–that kills animals and people and drains their blood. I’ve given up on speculation about what juries will do, or what directors of DPIC will do, for that matter. Let’s just wait and see what the board decides.”
“Do you know something I don’t know, Hyrum?”
“No, Ma’am, I don’t.”
Sybil could not help wondering if the absent Carter Tarkington might know a little something more.
She could see her attorney down the hall speaking with one of the DPIC case representatives, presumably about another case. When the board room door opened, he made his way back to where Sybil and Hyrum, and now the CEO’s secretary, were standing.
“Please come back in Dr. Norcroft, Mr. Tarkington, and Mr. Willis. The chairman wants to talk with you.”
The three took the seats they had vacated a quarter of an hour before.
Never one to waste time on irrelevant comments or social pleasantries, Max Webster said, “Thanks for you patience. It is the policy of the board to ask the principles to depart during final discussions in order to ensure complete freedom of expression. I’m sure you understand.”
The three nodded in polite, if reserved, agreement.
“The board has officially decided to agree to a settlement offer presented by the plaintiff’s attorney, Mr. Bel Geddes.”
Sybil felt a sudden rush of blood to her head and feared that she might faint. She gripped the arms of her chair until her hands were white. She was sure she could not have heard the man correctly. She glanced at Hyrum who looked dumbstruck. Carter wore a sickly, but not a surprised look. He did not venture to glance in Sybil’s direction.
The world moved in slow motion. It seemed like several minutes went by, but, in reality, only a second passed before Sybil was convinced that she had, indeed, heard Max Webster correctly. Her composure returned, and with it, an icy anger. There was a hard impolite edge to her voice. She did not feel any particular need to maintain a facade of comity any longer.
“Would you please explain that ridiculous decision to me. I am slow, just a physician and a PhD. I will need some guidance.”
If the CEO was aware of the acerbity of her comment, he did not show it. He dispassionately proceeded to give her guidance.
“We all recognize the merits of the defense case. In a just and perfect world the case would be a defense attorney’s dream. In a just and perfect world the suit would never have been filed, for that matter. But the directors of DPIC had to deal with the world that really is, not that ideal one. In our world, we have drawn a court in the middle of an African-American section of town where the blacks and the Hispanics have been at each other’s throats for decades. Only this year have the leaders of both communities been trying to mend the internecine rifts. Since the African-Americans predominate in the community, they are bending over backwards to be and to appear to be conciliatory to the sensitivities of the Hispanic minority. They have strongly supported Catholic saint’s days processions, Cinco de Mayo parades, rallies for Hispanic causes, even Mexican Independence Day celebrations.
“This has spilled over into the courts. You must be aware that African-American juries are now acquitting 70% of young blacks for crimes that Caucasian juries are convicting 80% of young whites for. In the past twelve months, predominately African-American juries have been acquitting more than 80% of Hispanic youths irrespective of the evidence presented by prosecutors. And now we are asked to defend a very rich, very high profile, very educated, very privileged, very white and Anglo member of the establishment–a doctor–against the modest claims of a middle-aged poor Hispanic woman from the neighborhood. She has been victimized by the white establishment, so much so that she has lost her ability to speak English in a country that passed an English-only law. She has lost her ability to enjoy life, or for her husband to enjoy life since she no longer can have sex, probably the only pleasure vouchsafed this couple in an otherwise white dominated world. Do you really think a sympathetic African-American jury, when presented with such an inexpensive opportunity to ingratiate itself with its Hispanic co-sufferers, will be swayed by such irrelevancies as evidence, especially scientific evidence? Need I remind you of the O.J. Simpson jury of some years back?”
Sybil felt thoroughly cowed and dejected. She managed only one argument.
“Can’t we get a change of venue?”
“On what grounds, Doctor?”
“Prejudice, racism. You just described the bias.”
“That is naive, Dr. Norcroft, if you will pardon my directness. There will be no consideration of a change of venue because there can be no possible evidence of bias. We have a Hispanic judge in charge of an African-American jury in a volatile community that, to a person, believes itself to be oppressed. Only whites can have prejudice or be racists. One has to have power to be able to be a racist, a bigot, or to discriminate. You are under the delusion that negative acts or expressions of opinion about groups alone constitute bigotry. That would be more like what we might find in that ideal world we were talking about earlier. That could not be further from the truth in this real world we have to deal with. Much as I personally might like to crusade for what I think is right and true, and make no mistake, I heartily believe that you are on the side of the angels in this one, I cannot do it. I am the CEO of a company responsible for business, for money. I can not afford to let sentiment govern my decisions. The money decision has to be to settle, and settle we will. I’m sorry, Doctor.
“I have no intentions of settling, Mr. Webster.”
Sybil had an implacable expression on her face.
“I am familiar with the by-laws and protections afforded physicians in the DPIC contract. You cannot settle the case without my permission. Isn’t that a fact, Sir?”
“That is indeed a fact, Doctor.”
“Then I am going to demand that you defend me in this case, whether you like it or not.”
“That is your right. Now let me tell you the rights of the company. DPIC is obligated to provide you the best possible defense. We are not obligated, however, to pay a judgment beyond a monetary level that we deem appropriate to the degree of culpability of our member and the company. This level has been well established in the courts. It is defined as the amount of money that can be agreed upon by the plaintiff with fiduciary responsibility and the defendant–the court sanctioned settlement. We are required to pay that settlement. It is not our obligation to pursue a case into court, to lose, and to pay more than that settlement. Nor is it our obligation to fund the legal costs of an appeal. For both the additional legal costs, that can amount to several hundred thousand dollars, and for the above-settlement damages, that can run into the millions from a hostile jury, you are on your own. As a matter of procedure, if you elect to pursue this case beyond the settlement we have negotiated, you will have to have a new set of attorneys. Mr. Tarkington, and Mr. Willis, and the members of their firm, are in our employ, and it would constitute a conflict of interest for them to defend you since they are acting in our interests, and you may well be in an adversarial position with regards our company.”
Sybil looked hard at Carter Tarkington. He responded with a wan and rueful smile, acknowledging the accuracy of the CEO’s statements.
“I suppose the next thing you will tell me is that this will be like car insurance. If I go on my own, and, therefore, adopt an ‘adversarial position’ as you call it, you can up my premiums or something?”
“I don’t care for the denigrating comparison, Dr. Norcroft, but, since we have elected to take off our gloves, figuratively speaking, I will add, that, like your hypothetical car insurance company, we can take steps to remove you from membership.”
That raised the ante a giant and sobering step. Sybil’s mind was now working in its best logical and scientific way. She had damped down her seething anger and was working to think with a clear head. She did not want to talk herself into an inextricable and personally harmful position. There was a brief silence in the room as everyone watched her think and decide. She set her jaw in a grim line.
“And how much is the settlement offer?”
“Today, we can be removed from this action with a check for $300,000. We are prepared to send our check to Mr. Bel Geddes by courier this very night. With your signed concurrence, of course.”
Sybil knew she was being extorted. She was unclear to whom she should direct her animus and disdain–Mrs. Juarez, Judge Hector Dolorosa’s court, the ethnocentricity of the Comptrell community, her lawyers for failing to inform her fully of this eventuality, DPIC’s policies, the CEO, Max Webster, God, or Paul Bel Geddes. Rationality prevailed, and she chose Bel Geddes.
“All right. I know when I am coerced. Let’s get on with it. Get me the paper to sign, and you can go wash your hands, Mr. Webster.”
It was a grim Sybil Norcroft who read the print-out of the entry in the National Physicians Data Bank under her name as she sat on the stoop of her house at the horse ranch.
“Sybil Norcroft, M.D., PhD, F.A.C.S. – Out of court settlement in the amount of $300,000 to Evangelina Juarez. Improper ordering of contrast angiogram with resultant loss of speech and consortium. No appeal. For the plaintiff: Stewart, Bel Geddes, and Loughlin. For the defendant: Schmid, Principle, Tarkington, and Henley, in-house for Doctors Protection Indemnity Cooperative. Court: Comptrell Superior. Judge Hector Dolorosa, pres.”
The closure of the case had been transmitted with electrical swiftness to the national data bank as soon as Judge Dolorosa had signed it, unlike the glacial pace of most other aspects of the court system. She had been absentmindedly picking at an apple. She crumpled the paper and threw it into the yard. Then she threw the half-eaten apple in the same direction letting out a bark of rage as she did so.
“Ah, mi Dama,” Pancho said softly. “Can I be of help?”
His eyes caught hers and took in the fury and hurt in his benefactress’s gaze.
Sybil had thought she was alone, and was embarrassed that her adolescent display of temper had been witnessed.
“You startled me, Pancho. I wish you could help, old friend, but the harm is done. I have just lost a big legal case.”
“Like a suit?”
“Yes. A big settlement.”
“For the malpractice? The jury gave money to the person who took you to court?”
It grated on her soul even to talk about it.
“It was a settlement–out of court. I didn’t even get a chance to tell my side.”
“That does not seem fair, Doctor. How does that happen?”
“My insurance company thought we could not win the case…It involved a minority person, and the company did not think we could get a fair trial.”
“A black person?”
“No, actually…” She fumbled a little. “A Mexican-American woman, an illegal, actually.”
A mixture of emotions ran fleetingly across Pancho’s weathered brown face. The expressions were subtle nuances of change in the placid features. They were evident to Sybil because she knew the man so well.
“I do not want to be nosy, to intrude on your privacy, Dr. Sybil, but could you please tell me something of the problem?”
His concern was genuine.
She smiled inwardly, aware of his dilemma. On the one hand his natural sympathies leaned towards the illegal alien, whom Pancho did not know personally, presumably the victim of the monolithic system, and the important doctor, who represented the power of the establishment. On the other hand, the Mexican loved his Patrona and knew by his own long experience that she was an eminently good and unselfish person with whom he and his family had flourished.
Sybil seldom confided in anyone except her husband. In recent years she and her husband, Charles, had tended to go in divergent directions as a result of their immersion in their demanding careers. They considered themselves to be professionals altogether capable of dealing with their own crises and, over the years, had gradually stopped sharing their professional problems, then their professional lives, and lately, even their personal lives were running ever more separately. Sybil felt a strong need to unleash some of her pent-up anger and frustration on someone, someone sympathetic. She felt the need to convince another person of the injustice she had experienced. She wanted to do that without it being a female emotional outburst. She wanted to tell her side so that the compelling truth of it would be self-evident and would produce a confidant who would feel and know the injustice of the system.
“Are you sure you want to hear, Pancho?” Sybil asked the Mexican ranch foreman.
“I am a good listener. What effects you, effects the rancho and me. I would be honored if you would think me friend enough to tell me your problem.”
“All right, let’s go inside.”
Carlita Rodriguez was on her hands and knees scrubbing the wood floor of the spacious family room of the ranch house. She smiled broadly when her husband and the Patrona entered.
“Buenas tardes,” she greeted.
“Hola,” said Sybil.
Pancho nodded at his wife and smiled his greeting.
“We are going to talk,” Pancho said, giving Carlita a meaningful glance.
She looked at him for confirmation. He made a gesture with his lips pointing in the direction of the doorway. Carlita stood and started for the other room.
“Carlita, I would like you to stay and hear my story,” Sybil said.
Carlita looked pleased, and Pancho looked relieved.
“Thank you, Dr. Sybil,” Carlita said with her soft lilting accent.
The three of them sat on the oversized leather covered couch.
“I was going to tell Pancho why I was so mad. I just had to settle a malpractice case, one that was an injustice to me. I did nothing wrong, and it makes me angry to have the justice system abuse me.”
Neither Mexican spoke. They watched Sybil with undivided attention.
“Here’s what happened,” Sybil began.
It took the better part of half an hour to tell the whole story. Sybil had to explain how the civil justice system worked, and how her case had transpired and had been settled. She did not spare the couple the discussion about the ethnic forces that had underlain the final decision not to proceed with what logically should have been a winnable case.
Sybil concluded by showing Pancho and Carlita the formal entry in the Physicians National Data Bank with its stark descriptions. To both Mexicans it looked like a criminal rap sheet. That was how they identified with the process. That identification evoked powerful negative emotions, memories of past brushes with U.S. law by themselves and by friends. In their minds, the system was like the one in Mexico–patently and institutionally unfair–loaded in favor of the government against powerless humble citizens. It shocked them and caused an unspoken wave of insecurity to pass over them to think that even one so important as their Patrona could be so poorly used by the justice system. It made them angry.
“It is not fair, Dr. Sybil,” concluded Carlita in her succinct fashion.
Her dark eyes were flashing her outrage. Pancho was more thoughtful. It never occurred to him that Sybil Norcroft would lie or even shade the truth or exaggerate to make her own case. Sybil had always been completely forthright with him. He looked more hurt or ashamed than angry. Sybil was surprised and confused at his facial response.
“Please forgive us, Dr. Sybil,” he said. “Not all of us Mexicans are like that Evangelina. We are more honorable.”
“I didn’t mean to suggest…” Sybil rejoined, embarrassed that Pancho might be feeling that she had shown disrespect for his people in general.
“Of course you did not. But I am ashamed, anyway,” he interrupted, speaking earnestly.
“Evangelina shows the worst about us. She is superstitious. She wants something for nothing and is willing to tell lies to get it. She thinks it is all right so long as she can take something from the Anglos, from the big shots. It is easier and faster than working. Evangelina and her husband give to us a bad name, and I get angry with them.”
Sybil nodded. She made no argument.
“Well, include that Anglo crook of an attorney, Bel Geddes, when you are angry at people. He taught Evangelina this lie. He showed her how to use the system to cheat, to use the feelings of people to get something that he and she did not deserve. I reserve most of my anger for him. He is a rat.”
“I think that also. Some way it seems personal to me. Maybe because a Mexicana did it to you. I feel angry and sad for her, but the Anglo abogado is a bad one. I feel you should have venganza..”
There was a chilly hardness in Pancho’s clear enunciation of the word for vengeance. Sybil could not muster up enough Judeo-Christian ethic to protest that she should turn her other cheek. With Paul Bel Geddes, she could not bring herself to do that. Her own feelings ran too much in the same vein as Pancho’s call for venganza.
“I would be willing to help if you want family with you a vindicar. I do not know the word in English.”
“Thank you, Pancho. I think of you and Carlita and the others as family as well. I am going to work to get my feelings of venganza out of my mind, but if I cannot, and if I should find a way, then maybe one day I will call on you.”
“I and my family will be waiting,” Pancho asserted solemnly. Carlita’s serious face reflected her concurrence.