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Trial Lawyer on Trial

John Edwards seems to have no reason for his presidential candidacy, other than to keep the door open for heart-rending lawsuits.

By 11.24.03

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John Edwards is U.S. Senator from North Carolina and a candidate for President. Like many relatively unknown aspirants, he has elected to write a book introducing his candidacy.

Operating under the old writers' workshop axiom to "write about what you know," Edwards in Four Trials (Simon & Schuster, 256 pages, $24) recounts four civil cases in which he represented grievously injured victims (or their survivors) in winning million-dollar damage awards from large corporations or government entities. It was these fees that also helped catapult him to his surprise 1998 victory for U.S. Senator in his first attempt at public office. The result is a book that reveals both the strengths and weaknesses of his presidential bid.

Like many of the jurors who appear in these pages, the reader first encounter these cases as just another example of why there are "too many lawsuits in America" and ends by thinking "those people got just what they deserved." The first case involves an aging bachelor alcoholic who suffered massive brain damage when his doctor tried to accelerate a drug-based regimen to avert him from alcohol. The second involves the daughter of a modest working-class couple who suffered cerebral palsy when their obstetrician refused to deliver her by caesarian section. The third involves a minister and his wife who were killed in a collision with a commercial tractor-trailer. The fourth involves a five-year-old girl whose intestines were sucked out of her body when she became trapped on a wading-pool drain.

Particularly in the second and fourth cases, Edwards reveals all the admirable qualities of the plaintiff bar and the common irresponsibilities and weaknesses of large corporate institutions. The cerebral palsy case (which occurred in 1979) involved a highly respected Greenville doctor who still had an old-fashioned aversion for performing C-sections. Confronted with a feet-first breach birth (the most dangerous kind), he ignored signs that the baby was not receiving enough oxygen and allowed a difficult vaginal delivery. The hospital then tricked the parents into signing a release form before telling them their baby was severely injured. The doctor settled quickly, but Edwards went on to sue the hospital, a much more difficult task since it involved faulting the nurses, who were popular figures in the community. Nevertheless he won - leading to state reforms that made it easier for nurses to appeal to higher hospital authorities when they believe the doctor is making a mistake.

In the wading pool incident, the five-year-old girl lost 80 percent of her intestines and was condemned to a lifelong regimen of feeding tubes when someone didn't secure drain cover in the shallow pool. The filtering pump system created a horrendous vacuum that made it literally impossible for several adults to pry her off. The pool owners and county inspectors quickly settled but the manufacturer insisted the drain was without fault, claiming it had only been misused by maintenance crews who did not screw the cover into place.

Edwards uncovered a dozen other cases where children and adults had suffered death or grievous injury by being trapped on the same drains. He also showed that company manuals did not even mention the need for securing with screws. Finally, he discovered corporate correspondence indicating the company had long known the problem but brushed aside safety concerns. "Doesn't he know this kind of thing should never be put in writing?" warned one memo.

Edwards tells these stories in an even tone that often belies their wrenching emotions. Interwoven is an account of the senator's youth, in which he became the first of his strong family of mill workers to attend college. His successful marriage and rising career were thrown into stark relief in 1996, however, when his beloved eldest son was killed in an auto accident.

The question that is left hanging in the air, unfortunately, is, "What does any of this have to do with running for President?" Much of the book reads like one of those warmhearted autobiographies of movie stars. On the level of public discussion, not a single national issue is every mentioned. Except for his desire to keep the doors open to lawsuits, Edwards never feels compelled to explain why he ran for Senator, let alone President.

Trial lawyers live in a world where condemning huge institutions and extracting large sums of money helps people avoid human tragedy. It only works up to a point. As one of Edwards' clients says after winning a huge judgment, "What do I do now?" What happens when events move beyond the cozy confines of the courtroom and into the big wide world, where there may be no well-insured defendants to blame?

Edwards' book brings to mind the slim volume written by another obscure but ambitious U.S. Senator, John F. Kennedy. In Profiles in Courage, Kennedy displayed an historical grasp of public issues and an exquisite sense of irony about the difficult decisions public officials must often make. It was a foreshadowing of his Presidency.

Four Trials is a nice introduction to the world of a trial lawyer. As a résumé for a presidential candidate, however, it is a blank slate.

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About the Author
William Tucker is news editor for RealClearEnergy.org.