Bill Mitchell, a former San Diego City Council member and deputy mayor, is a sophisticated man who thought he knew how to read people. But he now says ruefully that he was bamboozled by people in the medical profession and their insurers into thinking they had his wellbeing at heart when, in fact, they were concerned with the bottom line. Because he trusted them, he has lost sight in his left eye, and has no way to make those responsible pay.
Bill always had great vision: as a child, friends called him "eagle eye" and compared his vision with that of another San Diegan, Ted Williams. Having impaired sight hit him hard.
Bill's troubles began in 1998, when the 70-year-old went in for a glaucoma operation. The ophthalmologist left him instructions: call him immediately if he had redness in the eye; a discharge; pain; or loss of vision.
One morning a few weeks later Bill looked in the mirror and said "Oh my God! I have all four symptoms." He called the surgeon, who said, "get in here," and turned him over to a scheduler. The scheduler booked a noon appointment. It was 8 a.m. Bill protested that "this is an emergency. I'm losing my eyesight." But the scheduler would not budge. Bill arrived at 10 to noon and was not seen until 1 p.m. -- five hours after all four emergency symptoms appeared.
The surgeon performed a vitrectomy. Bill went home. Two weeks later, he needed the same operation again. The vision in that eye never returned.
As the eye failed to return to normal, the medical people advised patience. He recalls one of them telling him to wait 180 days before pushing the matter. Bill recalls thinking that the wording was odd. Why not say five or six months, rather than 180 days?
Because, he now realizes, the statute of limitations is 180 days. They were trying to run out the clock.
A lawyer friend helped him, and they wrote a letter, within the time limit, threatening to sue. That bought Bill another six month extension.
At the risk management department of the medical facility where the surgery took place, "a woman who would melt the socks off you" continued to assure Bill that they would take care of him through a settlement. "They stalled me and stalled me. But they were so nice. I believed it, right up until the 11th hour," says Bill.
After 11 months, however, the risk management "nice lady" told him there would be no settlement. That left Bill one month to find a lawyer. He tried 16: none would take the case because they said they needed at least ninety days to prepare. Bill's lawyer friend surmised that California's 1975 law that puts a $250,000 damage cap on compensation for injured patients was a principal reason attorneys were staying away.
Meanwhile, he discovered that no ophthalmologist would testify against a colleague. He tried to go out of state for an expert witness but learned that he would have to pay the man $25,000 up front.
At a dead end, Bill reluctantly dropped the matter, and tried to find his way back to normalcy.
"I was shriveled into a shell," he says. "I felt like an old man." The once gregarious politician became reluctant to speak in public. With the help of friends and family he has rebounded.
But he remains enraged. "You can't trust doctors and the medical facilities. They don't always help you. They'll use any legal manipulation to keep you from being compensated." And they'll charm you while they're doing it, he says. "I've never had such a ramrod run on me. I don't trust the bastards anymore."
Bill opposes frivolous lawsuits, but he thinks the statute of limitations and its $250,000 cap on compensation are mistakes. They denied him his day in court. "In most cases the person injured really does have injury and pain and suffering." Bill opposes the move to make the 1975 law, now 45 years old, the law of the land.