• Karen Tran-Harding

I was sued as a second year medical student – but it’s not for what you think

Updated: Dec 30, 2020

During my second year of medical school, I was returning home from playing Uno with a sweet grandmother at her retirement home she shared with her husband. On my drive back, I was heading down a small road when the gray Ford Fusion in front of me suddenly stopped to make a left turn. I quickly stepped on the brakes of my weathered Nissan Versa but unfortunately, it was raining that day. My car just did not stop in time and instead skidded a pretty good distance before I ended up rear ending the poor car in front of me.

I turned off my engine and rushed out to apologize. Luckily there was no damage to either of our bumpers – not even a scratch. The passenger of the car who was the driver’s mother, a woman in her 70’s, stepped out and told me not to worry and that they were both fine. But when I walked over to the driver’s window, to my horror, the driver of the car was moaning and holding the back of her neck. The police and ambulance arrived, and the patient was taken into the ambulance on a stretcher. I was distraught, my blood pressure was elevated for the next 4 hours, and I had utterly ruined two innocent people’s day that dreary afternoon.

A few weeks later, I received a letter stating that the driver and her mother were suing my insurance company (I won’t say which company but let’s just say it involves saving 15% and small lizards) for $25,000 for the driver and $15,000 for the passenger. I was also being warned that the people that I had rear ended may also file a claim against me as well.

A month later, I received a letter stating that a lawsuit would be pursued against me because my insurance company refused to pay the driver and her mother, even though my insurance claim covered up to $40,000. And to make matters worse, my insurance company completely dropped me, something I didn’t even know insurance companies could do. Fortunately, they did equip me with a lawyer that was kind, patient, and knowledgeable. Despite that, I was devastated because as a poor medical student, my bank account usually hung around a balance of $14 (only a mild exaggeration I assure you). I just wasn’t capable of paying anyone tens of thousands of dollars.

The process of even receiving my lawsuit was traumatizing. Every day, I would find a note taped to my door from a police officer that they were trying to deliver the legal documents between the hours of 8 am to 5 pm. You know, those regular work hours in which I was never going to be home. This just gave me anxiety as it just delayed the inevitable for a good 2 weeks.

I thought about my lawsuit at least once a day for 8 months. I finally took a vacation to try to clear my mind and get away from my worries. When my lawyer called me after I had not heard from him for 3 months, I held my breath. I remember sitting on a sea foam green couch on the porch of an inexpensive rental home when he broke the news that my former insurance company had finally settled for an undisclosed amount. I could at long last exhale – it was finally over.

Fast forward to my third-year as a medical student. I was on a clinical rotation at the Health Department with a wonderful family medicine attending physician. I was doing my usual routine of preparing for the next patient by looking up the patient’s history. The next patient was coming in for chronic back pain. She also had a history of depression, had been unemployed for 2 years, and was having a very difficult time living with her sister because her nieces and nephews were “annoying”. I was prepping the clinic note on the laptop in the examination room with my attending when the patient stepped in. I looked up from the screen and couldn’t believe my eyes.

It was the driver of the car.

Even at the time, I knew I should have immediately excused myself and bolted right out of the room. But I was so mortified and afraid the patient would recognize me that all I could manage was to simultaneously stare extra hard at the laptop screen and turn my head as far away in the most unnatural position so that the patient couldn’t see my face. Internally, I hoped with all my heart that my hair being down that day rather than being up in a ponytail on the day of the accident would make me look different enough.

The patient never recognized me and to her credit, she never made a disparaging comment about the driver that hit her car. All the patient briefly mentioned was that she had been in a car accident about a year ago but that she had chronic back pain for over 10 years and was finally planning to apply for disability. So, my attending referred her to physical therapy and the visit quickly ended.

The whole ordeal was a difficult experience that I never expected. It just goes to show you that we all make mistakes, and that life is going to just keep challenging us even outside of medicine. I found that we have to be patient, hope for the best and with time, things may resolve or at least get better. And looking back now, I still feel horrible for causing a car accident and I hope the patient and her mother are doing okay now. I still think about them from time to time. And you can bet I drive extra carefully in rainy weather now.

Whenever I tell anyone that I was sued as a medical student, it’s always met with shock and terror. I was lucky it was not (and hopefully won’t be for quite some time) a medical lawsuit but I’m glad I could look back with a little bit of humor because the nightmare just never seemed to want to end. And I hope that others may get a chance to hear other people’s tales of misfortunate and bad decisions and know they are not alone.

Oh, and somehow after all that, I’m back with my old insurance. Yep, that one with a certain reptilian mascot.

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