For attorneys like Crystal Grace Rutherford, helping clients to achieve what they rightfully deserve is her passion and duty. But those commitments have become tougher in a healthcare system that is littered with restrictions and challenges.
Upholding justice and fighting for those who have been wronged is a necessary action for the good of the social order. However, it’s becoming more and more difficult to achieve today due to increasing obstacles, which include interference by wealthy and powerful corporations to deny access to necessary and important information to a profit driven neglect of patient safety. For attorney Crystal Grace Rutherford, the latter is a clear example of why the healthcare system needs fixing, and a greater emphasis needs to be put on properly identifying medical issues in order to avoid further complications.
“One of the issues that I hear over and over again is we don’t have healthcare providers and physicians listening to what the patient has to say. That causes all kinds of issues down the road. It causes misdiagnosis [and] it causes medication errors. However, because we are running a for-profit nursing home system and a for-profit healthcare system, the profit motive supersedes the need for good care. And it’s part of the reason I think things are so broken.”
According to a 2014 report from the journal BMJ Quality and Safety, more than 12 million people a year are impacted by medical diagnosis errors in the U.S., while researchers state that half of those could be “potentially harmful.” “Part of it is they don’t listen, [and] women in particular don’t get listened to. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard, ‘I told the doctor these were my symptoms and he prescribed me this which didn’t do anything and then I got worse, and then it was too late.’ Or the records state something that was not said or done at all.”
Rutherford, who serves as the principal attorney at Excelsior Law PLLC, a firm based in Washington State, noted that the “hand and glove” relationships between health care corporations and insurance companies have developed another issue that can amount to frustrating attempts of gaining important information. “There are now barriers that prevent healthcare doctors from providing any evidence, any testimony for their own patients. We see this in personal injury cases such as auto wrecks and trips and falls when the client’s doctors are essential fact witnesses. The attorneys and the doctors are on the same side in these types of cases which is to help the patient/client get better and be able to access necessary care now and in the future that they may need.”
But, most doctors now work for corporations. “These corporations are now demanding that we pay them in advance — a couple grand sometimes — just so we can talk to our client’s doctor to ask: ‘What was going on or diagnosis, where do you think this is going – current therapies, what help does your patient need in the future – prognosis.’ When we have a personal injury case, we’re advocating for their patient. We’re advocating for them to not only get compensation for everything that they’ve gone through, all the pain, the disability, the alteration of their life, the destruction of whatever joys they had, things they can no longer do. We’re also trying to get them funds for care in the future. I am not a doctor, so I need the doctor to help me help his or her patient. And remember, this ends up being paid by the patient at the conclusion of the case. So what these corporations are actually doing is charging the doctor’s own patient for the doctor to help his or her own patient.”
“If we want to take the doctor’s deposition in order to preserve it for trial, a medical corporation will charge us thousands of dollars not only to talk to the doctor but also for his deposition, not including other costs related to the deposition.”
Doctors — despite being vital in both recovery and legal developments — can also interfere with the healing process by not helping patients at all if there is any claim or lawsuit. As an example, Rutherford cited a time where a doctor refused to do anything at all for his patient, ignoring her calls and letters. The doctor would not talk to her, write a brief opinion, or provide any guidance of what his patient needed now or in the future. The orthopedist’s patient had required surgery to repair a broken ankle caused by a careless forklift operator, and had an uncertain future due to the compromised weight-bearing joint.
Another time, an insurance adjuster was questioning the need for therapy that the doctor had recommended, but that doctor would not respond to justify his recommendations. “You might not get the care and the surgery you need,” she noted, emphasizing that a patient’s health, along with needed treatments and therapy, should always be a top priority regardless of whether or not there is also a legal claim.
Rutherford recalled one client of hers, a woman in her mid-fifties, that was involved in a car wreck and her knee was slammed into the dashboard. The woman experienced immediate swelling and pain and started therapy to help her get better. However, matters took a turn for the worse less than a year later when. “Another car ran through a stop sign, T-boned her, ramming the same knee into the dashboard. This time there was no going back for that knee to return to his previous healthy condition.”
Following her second crash, the doctor recommended total knee replacement, which surprised Rutherford. “You don’t expect somebody to have a full knee replacement in her mid-fifties. So we really needed to talk to the doctor. We just need to understand what’s going on and we need to understand how we can best proceed and how we can best advocate.”
Despite Rutherford asking for just a small amount of time to speak with the doctor and gain crucial clarification — stressing that they would do whenever and whatever was most convenient for him — she was denied access, which led to additional delays and legal team involvement. Eventually, Rutherford was able to talk with the doctor for fifteen minutes and learn the reasoning behind his diagnosis, but at a hefty price of $500. If the doctor is then needed to testify, either in a deposition and also at trial, the cost of his or her testimony runs into the thousands of dollars which for most law practices can be excruciatingly costly at the moment and painful if they are not recovered when the case ends.
“We front the costs. If you got a nice big war chest, it’s no big problem. But when you’re scraping by as a practice, $500 can be a lot of money for a 15-minute conversation. In that example, the doctor just explained to us why this was traumatically induced and wasn’t pre-existing, that it was all trauma, and that the second impact just broke her knee and there was no other alternative but a knee replacement. This barrier between the patient’s advocate and the patient’s doctors has been imposed by these large healthcare corporations, so it has become a bigger and bigger issue. We try to find our ways around it, [but] it’s difficult. And remember, this ends up being paid by the patient at the conclusion of the case. So what these corporations are actually doing is charging the doctor’s own patient for the doctor to help his or her own patient.”
Rutherford has made attempts in order to address these issues, reaching out to the state and representatives. “I advocate for my clients, but I can tell you I have never met anyone who would trade money for their health. It is true that you don’t know what you have until you lose it. We cannot have profit driven corporations putting barriers around our client’s physicians to keep them from helping their own patients.”
“The frustration of my clients is that their brain doesn’t work right. They know they have trouble processing, or they can understand what they’re seeing and hearing, but they can’t get the words out right. Or their memory is affected which can manifest itself in day-to-day difficulties in their personal and work life, often ending marriages and careers.”
Excelsior Law PLLC offers multiple services from construction injuries to nursing home neglect. In addition to orthopedic and connective tissue injuries sustained from negligent bike and car accidents, Rutherford represents clients who have suffered neurological and brain injuries such as traumatic brain injury, or TBI.
Rutherford recounted one client who has not had a single painless day in her life in five years since she had been in a collision with a driver who made a U-turn in front of her. “She’s not in intolerable pain, but she’s in pain every single moment. I talked to people who knew her and they said, ‘She’s a different person now. She’s really negative.’ That’s what I hear from her family and friends, she’s just not the same. People don’t realize how pain just takes away your joy. The pain just affects everything you do.”
As a woman in law, Rutherford has witnessed and experienced discrimination, though she did express positivity that the field is becoming much more equal in gender. “I think a lot has been changing for the last 20 years because more and more women are going into the field. We have more and more women judges. However, it wasn’t that long ago that we had here in Tacoma, a woman judge who chastised a woman lawyer for wearing a pantsuit in the courtroom. That was a problem. She was voted out at the next election.”
Rutherford experienced her own trials when she found herself out of a job at a previous firm because she was pregnant. “I did employment discrimination cases. I had told my employer I was pregnant, and suddenly I’m having a mid-year review.” Out of the four associates — with Rutherford the only female who was pregnant— she was the only one having a review. “Then they decided to let me go when I was eight months pregnant.” It was a classic case of sex discrimination and it happened to her, an attorney who prosecuted such cases.
Rutherford got her own attorney and was able to negotiate a deal where she stayed with the firm until after her son was born. Her sudden departure with a newborn resulted in difficulty finding another job, but when one door closes, another opens. She worked as a contract attorney and started her practice. She eventually started to meet with a group of other young mothers who were also litigators.
Affectionately dubbed “Law Moms,” the group would discuss topics from marketing, to kids, to cases, to handling a difficult opposing counsel. Rutherford said this kind of bond was “essential” for her to make it through a rough period and recommended that any woman looking to make their way should begin making connections because they could end up propelling them a long way. “I would try to find that group and start meeting with them. Do not be afraid to meet people. Because you don’t know where you’ll find your next ally or support.”
“The laws apply to everyone, no exceptions. Because I’ve seen what happens when you have exceptions. It’s not pretty. There is an arbitrariness to life under an authoritarian dictator since how the country operates relies on his whims, his beliefs, his likes, and dislikes. That arbitrariness causes uncertainty in social interactions, in business, and of course justice.”
For Rutherford, her career as a lawyer goes well beyond the idea of it merely being a job. All you need to do is listen to her talk, and you’ll discover the sense of an undying and fiery passion for the work. She looks at it as a platform for her to not only help those who are suffering, but to bring truth and balance to a world where the odds for those on the short end of the stick are growing worse and worse.
Of course, she knows exactly how the powerless can feel, giving her a powerful perspective. She grew up in Spain under the rule of dictator Francisco Franco. “One thing about growing up in a dictatorship, the people that were able to succeed, were those who were well connected. It had to be because of who you knew, not due to your own merit, which is not fair. Maybe because I had an American father, the idea of fairness [and] an even playing field is really important.”
“Lawyers are supposed to seek the truth. We’re supposed to present the truth. We have no business presenting anything but the truth to the court, the other side, or to the public. I really believe that.” Rutherford explained that if she has a client who she believes is lying — and continues to lie after she speaks with them about the concerns — she will fire them.
“[Lying] will not only affect that case, it will affect everything. Lawyers have a duty to society as a whole, just not our individual clients. You cannot present somebody who is exaggerating or malingering their injuries. Most attorneys I know feel the same way. You don’t survive either as a person or lawyer otherwise. If you start making decisions by allowing a less than a truthful client or witness to go forward, you’re not only breaching your ethics, you’re also losing yourself.”
“For me, being a lawyer is a vocation. It’s hard work, long hours, [and] lots of stress. And you don’t go into this unless you really want to do it. If you go to law school because you don’t know what else to do, you’re not going to last as a lawyer.”
To learn more about Excelsior Law PLLC and their services, you can visit their website by clicking here.
Andrew Rhoades is a Contributing Reporter at The National Digest based in New York. A Saint Joseph’s University graduate, Rhoades’ reporting includes sports, U.S., and entertainment. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.