Smart People Make Dumb Mistakes, Even Doctors

For well over 30 years I have handled medical malpractice cases, both defending doctors and representing injured patients. Frequently, I will review a set of records and see where the doctor just made a huge but really very simple error - often with catastrophic results. Doctors are smart people, often very smart. They have long and intense training. This leads to the obvious question of how a brilliant physician could make such a totally boneheaded and simple error. Doctors are not idiots – that's a given - but what I’m seeing in some medical records can make me question that assumption.

The simple truth is that sometimes very smart and capable people do dumb things, sometimes really dumb things. That’s not just true of doctors. It applies to everyone, even lawyers. Even me.

Let me give you an example: I have an old car – a beater, so to speak. I use it to haul my dogs around – they shed profusely – and do other errands that get messy, like trips to the nursery to get plants. It’s a 19-year-old Subaru I bought from my daughter when she moved to Washington D.C. and no longer needed a car. It’s in okay shape and it runs pretty well, but it’s an old car with little value. If it needs repairs, one must consider if the cost of the repairs is worth it.


Last week I filled the car with gas (or so I thought at the time). As I drove away, I noticed that the gas gauge still showed the tank as almost empty. That struck me as curious, but my thought was that this is an old car and sometimes things quit working, especially if electronics are involved. Oh well, I thought; I will just have to make sure I reset the trip odometer every time I get gas and fill the car every 150 to 200 miles. And at that moment, I did, in fact, reset the trip odometer.

Perhaps my first clue that my analysis was flawed was when the empty tank light came on. It did strike me as curious, but I gave it no more thought. After all, the gas gauge didn’t work.

On Friday I was in the office and at lunch time I went to one of my favorite spots, which had just reopened. On the way back, my old car started running roughly. It lost power and finally stopped all together. Damn, I thought; this is bad. After getting the car off the road, I walked back to my office. It was not far. I called my regular garage and arranged for the car to be towed into the shop. I told my garage to figure out what was wrong but to call me before doing anything. My old car might not be worth repairing.

On Monday, the owner of the garage called me. With a grave tone of voice, he said: “Mr. Rawls, you said to call you before doing any repairs...” I told him that was correct. The car might not be worth it. I suspect he was smiling (and suppressing a laugh) when he then told me that the car was out of gas.

I guess when I had gone to fill the car the week before the pump had cut off, as it sometimes does, and the tank had not been filled. I must have been distracted and not noticed there was no sale shown on the pump or a minimal one. Instead, I noted the gas gauge and immediately concluded it must be broken. It’s an old car after all. I was wrong – stupidly wrong.

Not to be egotistical, but I am a smart guy - smart enough anyway - and a good lawyer. I have a lot of life experience. I cannot really recall the last time I did something as dumb as what I had just done with my car. But in this instance, I was basically an idiot. Sometimes what happened to me regarding my car happens in professional settings. Smart people can and do make very dumb mistakes. I have seen it many times. If one were considering the question of negligence – breaching the standard of care – what I did plainly met that criteria. If some harm had occurred, it would be my fault, clearly.

Sometimes doctors make assumptions and go down the wrong path, just like I did. The results can be tragic. But that doesn’t mean the doctor is a bad person. Good people can do bad things. It happens. Occasionally, all of us screw up badly. That gives no one a pass. People, including doctors and other professionals, are responsible for their conduct, innocent though a mistake might be.

One of the things we always must remember in a malpractice case is that the matter is about the specific acts or omissions involved. It's not about motives or the morality of the healthcare provider. It’s about what happened, why it happened, and the resulting damages. That may sound cold – and clients often think that – but as lawyers we have to be dispassionate in our assessments. We owe that to our clients.

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