Richard Huber made that mistake in a story published Jan. 22 in The Hartford Courant, two days after jurors in San Bernardino hit Aetna U.S. Healthcare of California with a $120.5 million judgment for refusing to cover an experimental treatment for David Goodrich, a former deputy district attorney who subsequently died of stomach cancer.
Huber is the chief executive officer of Aetna‘s parent company, Aetna Inc., which is based in Connecticut. While calling the verdict a “travesty of justice,” Huber also told a Courantreporter that it was due to “a skillful, ambulance-chasing lawyer, a politically motivated judge and a weeping widow.”
At first, Bidart says, he didn’t believe the reporter who related Huber’s comments.
“I honestly thought she might be baiting me,” the Shernoff, Bidart, Darras & Arkin partner recalls. “I told her I found it difficult to believe a person in that position would say that.”
He momentarily laughed at the comment, then got upset. “The more I thought about it, the angrier I got,” he recalls. “Ambulance chasing . . . is really tantamount to unethical conduct.”
Huber later apologized to Teresa Goodrich — the “weeping widow” — in a private letter sent to her Redlands home and in a public letter to the Los Angeles Times. Bidart, however, got no apology and is now considering a libel suit against Huber. “It’s definitely actionable as libel per se,” he says.
Even if Bidart doesn’t sue, Huber still faces the fury of a Santa Monica consumers’ group and possibly the wrath of Congress.
Jamie Court, spokesman for The Foundation for Taxpayer and Consumer Rights, has demanded that Aetna fire Huber and is asking Congress to deny the insurance company any federal Medicare contracts because of allegedly misleading statements by Aetna in post-verdict letters to U.S. representatives and senators in Washington, D.C.
Huber couldn’t be reached for comment. But a spokesman for Aetna says the CEO “in no way meant to denigrate Mrs. Goodrich” and that the company stands by its congressional letters, which pointed out mitigating information jurors supposedly ignored or didn’t get to hear because of rulings from the bench.
“You need to consider that Mr. Court is a zealous opponent of managed care and his actions seem to be destined to serve his own agenda as opposed to constructively adding to the public policy debate,” says Robert Pena, Aetna‘s San Ramon-based spokesman. “We feel most of his objections are based on semantics and interpretation, and our intent was never to mislead anybody.”
Even so, U.S. Rep. Fortney “Pete” Stark, D-Fremont, thought enough of Court’s comments to have them published in the Feb. 10 Congressional Record.
“What was upsetting is that Aetna sent a couple of memos around that there was this terrible court case and that the jury didn’t understand,” Stark staff assistant Bill Vaughan says. “It bothered Stark that there was ‘ex parte’ lobbying on the Hill . . . and he wants to make sure members don’t think it’s a one-sided story and that everybody in Southern California is crazy.”
Aetna, meanwhile, has moved for a new trial in Goodrich v. Aetna U.S. Healthcare of California Inc., 020499. A hearing is set for March 19, at which time San Bernardino County Superior Court Judge Christopher Warner — by all counts a conservative Republican who once practiced insurance defense — might get a chance to inquire about Huber’s allegations that his trial actions were “politically motivated.”