What You Should Do If You Get A Summons

By Robert L. Goldstucker, JD

Being sued by a patient can result n a range of emotions and confusion regarding the legal process. This attorney helps you navigate the legal process from the time one receives the summons to the deposition and settlement process. A sheriff comes to your office, asks to see you and hands you a summons and complaint. You have been served with a lawsuit. Welcome to my world. This world is not about the medicine. You will not be judged by your peers. There is no search for the truth. In this world, it is about perception, credibility and spin.    Service of a lawsuit can occur in a number of ways, depending upon the rules of your jurisdiction. Various jurisdictions allow service of a summons and complaint by certified mail, process server, a sheriff’s deputy or acknowledgement of service. One may be served at home, at the office or wherever you may be found. Service is the beginning of a lawsuit and triggers action on your part to avoid an entry of default against you.    The complaint, sometimes accompanied by an affidavit from an expert, will characterize your treatment of the plaintiff in the most dastardly terms. The complaint may describe you as having been negligent in your treatment and diagnosis of the patient, in your selection and execution of surgical procedures, and/or your postoperative care. You may be accused of a delay or failure in obtaining a consult, in diagnosing and treating an infection, or in recognizing complex regional pain syndrome (CRPS). Often complaints allege unnecessary surgery or surgery without adequate prior conservative care.    Sometimes you will be accused of altering your records, performing unnecessary surgery for the sole purpose of generating income or of committing fraud or battery. Lack of informed consent, guaranteeing results and covering up mistakes are also often alleged. You will be accused of causing grievous injury, robbing from the plaintiff his or her ability to work and engage in the activities of daily living, and destroying the intimacy previously enjoyed with his or her spouse.    Anger, shock, embarrassment, fear and bitterness are emotions that physicians commonly feel soon after they have been served. Sometimes those feelings persist but able counsel can help manage this roller coaster and put this process in perspective.

Why A Quick Response Is Essential

Upon receipt of the summons, you should immediately contact your malpractice insurance company by telephone. Your carrier will want to know the date you were served. Your carrier will then ask for a faxed copy of the summons and complaint, and will subsequently assign you defense counsel. If you are uninsured, speak to your lawyer at once and let him or her know you were served with a lawsuit and the date of service. An “answer” must be filed to every complaint. Otherwise, a default will be entered against you and all allegations contained in the complaint will be deemed to be true. Some jurisdictions require an answer to be filed in 15, 20 or 30 days. Do not delay. Notify your carrier or your lawyer at once.    After receipt of a summons, do not alter the patient’s chart. Do not alter the chart even if, upon review, you notice errors in transcription or dictation, incomplete entries, skipped progress notes, inaccurate operative reports or incorrect coding. You may wonder how the patient will ever find out if you make such additions or corrections to the chart. Perhaps you sent a copy of all or part of your chart to a subsequent physician, a health insurance carrier, a worker’s comp carrier or to the patient or his or her attorney. Perhaps you will be asked under oath whether you made any additions or changes to the chart following service.    Will you perjure yourself? The great likelihood is that any change in the chart will be uncovered during the litigation and such changes will reflect poorly on your integrity and character.

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