THE FAMILY OF Frank Thornton wasn't the only winner Monday in a medical malpractice case against Mercy Hospita
EDITORIAL: Settlement disclosure a dose of openness
In most cases, the public wins when settlements in lawsuits are open to the public. Yes, the Thornton estate was awarded $7 million. But in this situation, openness benefited not only the Thornton estate but also the public and even Mercy Hospital.
That was the claim of Dorothy Thornton. "No amount of money can ever change the fact that when I visit my husband I have to visit him at the cemetery. This lawsuit was to find the answers that no one would give us."
Her husband, Frank, died in September 2000, a few weeks after surgery. Doctors placed the breathing tube down his esophagus instead of his windpipe. Without oxygen for six to 10 minutes, Thornton's brain was damaged and lead to his death, said Thornton's attorneys.
The tragedy was made worse, said Thornton's attorneys, when doctors also missed signs of problems during surgery and afterward, when the hospital failed to tell Thornton's family about the errors.
So Monday, in addition to the monetary award, Dorothy Thornton found out what happened to cause her husband's death at 72. Because the settlement was open - good for Dorothy Thornton, good for the public's right to know - we were made aware of the series of situations. And the hospital had the opportunity to make amends to the Thornton family, begin a program to promote a patient's right to know and correct the system to prevent future lapses.
Imagine if secret settlements with the Catholic Church over child-molester priests continued to jeopardize the public. Or settlements with Firestone hid the dangers of some tires.
The secrecy issue is being challenged around the country. Federal judges in South Carolina voted last year to ban secret court settlements, particularly in cases in which public safety is threatened.
Proponents of secret settlements say there must be in balance that people have a right to privacy and that a settlement always implies an admission of guilt.
Contrary to that argument, however, keeping people uninformed can leave all sides under a shadow of guilt. In cases in which privacy is warranted, such as potentially embarrassing abuse or the welfare of a child, we can see a judge using discretion.
Attorneys in the Thornton case said the settlement would have been less if the hospital had been more open sooner and the case wasn't so expensive to investigate.
Maybe that's true, maybe that's an attorney making the most of success. In any case, we think the public has a right to be to served with openness and that people can analyze for themselves who is guilty.