Is it unethical for lawyers to accept referrals from negligent parties? About two dozen Maryland hospitals keep lists of “go-to” medical malpractice plaintiff lawyers (see the recent Baltimore Sun article). When the hospital makes what it considers to be a significant (and, presumably indefensible) mistake, the hospital will meet with the family and recommend that the family hire a lawyer. At that time, the hospital recommends a specific lawyer to the family – a lawyer who has agreed in advance to take a 10-15% fee (instead of the customary 33-40%). The Maryland hospitals involved in the program include institutions from MedStar Health, LifeBridge Health and the University of Maryland Medical System.
Here’s how it worked in at least one case, as cited by the article. The hospital makes a mistake. They call the injured person or family in for a meeting, acknowledging their error. The hospital will either make an offer to settle the claim immediately, or they will recommend that the injured person hire a lawyer. The hospital gives them the name of a lawyer who has agreed to take a reduced fee on the case. The injured person can then contact that lawyer, or find their own lawyer. In the article’s example, the hospital recommended one attorney, but the family later hired another lawyer not from the list.
Attorneys have to be wary of conflicts of interest. In the above examples, the potential conflict of interest lies with the lawyer. If he or she wants to continue receiving referrals from the hospital, the lawyer could conceivably allow that to affect case negotiation. Consciously or subconsciously, the lawyer might be afraid that if he or she does too good a job for his client (the victim), the hospital might not send him more cases. It’s worth noting that these cases are significantly easier than the average medical malpractice case-the hospital is admitting liability, which means that the cases are solely about the extent of harm caused to the victim. Most medical malpractice cases take three to five years before a resolution is reached; under the scenario above, the resolutions appear to come much more quickly.
This just doesn’t sit right with me – that the corporation who caused permanent injury to me or my family wants to give me the name of a lawyer to represent me, and that the hospital has previously worked out a deal with that lawyer so they accept a reduced fee? How can I fully trust that lawyer? It doesn’t seem right.
That said, I don’t think there is anything strictly unethical about it. In fact, the article cites to the chair of the Maryland State Bar Association’s ethics committee, who doesn’t see a problem as long as the lawyer uses his or her best efforts on behalf of the client (though, the chair cannot authoritatively state this-lawyer discipline is the job of the Attorney Grievance Commission and the Maryland Court of Appeals). Moreover, the lawyers the article identified as being on these lists, including Brian Nash and Andrew Slutkin, are ethical, experienced and fantastic trial lawyers. There is no doubt in my mind that they would place the best interests of their client above all else. If they are able to resolve a case for full value, at reduced fees and without filing a lawsuit (and without waiting three or more years to get to the end of the process), then that seems like a favorable situation for the client.
But, it is still one of those things that when you hear it, it sounds wrong. I don’t know how a victim doesn’t interpret this as a collusive effort between the hospital and the lawyer. You must have 100% confidence in your medical malpractice attorney; that you know they work for you and only for you and not for the party who harmed you.
If you or a loved one is in a situation where the hospital that caused harm to you provides you with the name of a personal injury lawyer, make sure you do your due diligence in finding the lawyer that is right for you: if that turns out to be this referral lawyer, then so be it; but if not, make sure you are doing what you believe is in the best interests of you and your loved one. Because you know the hospital always has its own best interest in mind – and its best interest does not mean taking care of you.