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Working Carefully With Doctor's Treating Injured Clients Makes A Difference

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By: John Cooper, HSCLA attorney

One of the key things in any injury case is working with experts. The primary expert in any injury case is the treating doctor; typically, a specialist, like an orthopaedist or a neurosurgeon. Good communication between the attorney and the treating doctor is key to successful conclusion of a case.

Some attorneys simply write a letter to the doctor asking them to express certain opinions in the case. I think this is a dangerous practice. The problem is the doctor may express opinions that you do not like and are not helpful to the client. Then, you are stuck with a permanent written record of these negative opinions.

I am more careful. I generally have a live or telephone conference with the doctor. I provide the doctor with all of the medical information, including past medical history on the patient. Then, I can have a good discussion with the doctor about his or her opinions about causation, prognosis, permanency, pre-existing conditions and all the other variables that arise in a personal injury case. I come prepared to the meeting to explain to the doctor why he can and should issue opinions favorable to the client. I make sure that he knows all of the negative information that the defense may use against the client, so there are no surprises.

After the meeting, I draft up a detailed list of all of the opinions and send them to the doctor to make sure that he agrees that I have correctly summarized his opinions about the personal injury case. Then, and only then, do I disclose those opinions to the defense.

I find that doctors, especially ones involved in personal injury cases a lot, really appreciate my thoroughness and preparation. By my doing my job properly, it makes it easier for them to do their job and to look good in a deposition or in court. For a doctor who does not do a lot of testifying, it is also comforting if the lawyer seems like they know what they are doing.

From years of experience in preparing for trial, I also know what questions to cover with the doctor that they might not think of and might not be in their medical notes. For example, did they consider the patient cooperative, reasonably motivated to get well, and honest? Do they think that the other health care providers provided treatment that was reasonably medically necessary and did they issue bills which were normal and customary in the community? Did the patient have objective symptoms of injury not just subjective complaints of pain, for example, spasms, trigger points, decreased range of motion, etc.? By asking these questions early in a case, I can also be sure I know how strong or weak the specialist’s testimony will be when it comes time for trial.

Another area often overlooked by less experienced personal injury lawyers is proving permanent work restrictions or restrictions on daily living activities. These future limitations can have large consequences in decreased earning capacity, if the injured person works. Also, it is important to clarify with the doctor whether they expect the patient to likely need medicine or treatment in the future. The cost of prescriptions, medical monitoring by a doctor of the prescription medication, and occasional therapies for flare ups really add up over the life time of a patient. These numbers can be put before the jury only if the doctor signs off on them and they are disclosed in discovery to the defense.

I think that knowing how to work with experts to maximize a recovery is one of the things that separates the really good personal injury attorneys from those who just dabble in the field. And, yes, the little things all add up and you never do know which one will make a huge difference.