By Hillel Aron
By Joseph Tsidulko
By Patrick Range McDonald
By David Futch
By Hillel Aron
By Dennis Romero
By Jill Stewart
By Dennis Romero
Many doctors and insurance companies blame skyrocketing malpractice rates on lawyers like Edwards, who win huge damages awards by successfully playing on a jury’s heartstrings. The North Carolina Medical Society has gathered disturbing anecdotal evidence, such as the case of a 51-year-old Hendersonville-area neurosurgeon. This doctor, in a high-risk specialty, saw his insurance rates rise from $60,000 in 2002 to $194,000 in 2003, even though, he said, no one had ever successfully pursued a malpractice claim against him. He was the only neurosurgeon in that part of the state when he packed up for another state. Million-dollar verdicts in North Carolina grew from 5 percent to 20 percent of cases over a 10-year period, said urologist Joseph Jenkins, who headed the Professional Liability Insurance Reform Task Force for the North Carolina Medical Society. Said Jenkins: “John Edwards set in motion, with his success, and in particular, his pursuit of cerebral-palsy cases, a litigation lottery mentality, built, for example, around the unscientific concept that if a child has cerebral palsy, it’s automatically the doctor’s fault.”
Attorney David Kirby, in turn, pointed out he and Edwards carefully screened inquiries for cases with genuine merit. He also cited estimates of 98,000 deaths a year from medical mistakes. He blamed rising malpractice rates on insurance companies that can no longer count on high dividends from premiums invested in the stock market as well as on the rising cost of medical care.
The senator’s critics, in essence, argue that trial attorneys, with Edwards as a trendsetter, have done harm to the masses while helping individual, sympathetic clients and also enriching themselves. Jenkins added that Edwards has protected trial lawyers at the federal level, too. Edwards would counter that he’s protecting the rights of the clients of trial lawyers. Overall, a Democratic voter might well conclude that Edwards’ empathy with victimized clients could translate to better governance than George W. Bush’s natural empathy with the already rich.
The evolving Edwards: As high
school standout for North
Moore Mustangs(BOTTOM LEFT); at law
school graduation with future
wife (RIGHT); and at wedding to
Photos Courtesy Edwards campaign
Legal triumphs did, in fact, allow Edwards to join the ranks of the wealthy. But he started from near scratch, as the eldest son of teenage mill workers who lived in a three-room company house. His father would labor all his life to creep into the middle class, and watched with pride as the boy he christened “Johnny” became the first family member to attend college. After graduation from law school at the University of North Carolina in Chapel Hill, he married Elizabeth Anania, a girl he’d noticed in his first class, someone whom he’d immediately concluded was smarter and more sophisticated than he’d ever be.
As they pursued their legal careers, John and Elizabeth Edwards doted on their son, Wade, and daughter, Cate, now a college senior. Edwards, recalled a colleague, once flew home from a deposition in Denver just to see Wade play in the YMCA league, then flew back to Denver. Edwards’ habit was to go through intense periods when he’d focus on a trial, then compensate for it with intense parenting. An end table at his old law office groans with plaques and trophies from when he coached his children’s sports teams. Photos of his children cover another bureau, along with a framed black-and-white photo of his wife as a raven-haired young beauty. In preparation for the courtroom, Edwards sometimes found inspiration by contrasting his clients’ grief with his own personal happiness. He’d compare the loss of one client’s parents to his own joyous times spent with his son and daughter. He’d look at a child with brain damage and note that she was almost exactly the same age as his son.
These images loom like an omen in Edwards’ book, when he describes the sweetness and intelligence of his son, and how Wade would have made a good minister, and how Wade talked of someday joining his father in the law firm. In the summer of 1995, Edwards and son tackled Mt. Kilimanjaro together, something for which Wade had prepared all summer. Edwards, busy with legal work, had not trained, but typically declined to back down from the challenge. Both made the summit, the elder Edwards in a world of pain, but buoyed by the promise of the young man blossoming before him.
Wade Edwards, 16, died the following year, on April 4, 1996, when a sudden gust of coastal wind caused his Jeep Grand Cherokee to flip over. His father, who’d mastered every situation the courtroom could throw at him with daring, brains and relentless preparation, suddenly had no answer. “Here’s a guy who has more energy than any human being you’ve ever known, and he was paralyzed,” said a family friend. “John and Elizabeth would sit on the couch and we would sit on chairs, and we would just look at each other.”
His law partner David Kirby lived a few doors down from Edwards’ elegant white colonial, and he’d stopped by almost every night to talk to Edwards, and virtually assist him to bed.