Charlotte Observer (NC)
(c) Copyright 2001, The Charlotte Observer. All Rights Reserved.
Sunday, July 8, 2001
PATIENTS’ LAWSUITS TREAT ATTORNEY WELL; LAWYER SAYS BILL OF RIGHTS WOULD MAKE HMOS RESPONSIBLE FOR DECISIONS
ERIC FRAZIER, Staff Writer
THE CHARLOTTE OBSERVER
FAYETTEVILLE — Wade Byrd fires up a Tareyton, takes a long drag and pronounces himself pleased with the work he’s done this year.
He should be.
With just six months of 2001 in the books, the Mecklenburg-born, Fayetteville-bred lawyer has racked up about $23 million in jury verdicts and out-of-court settlements. If he takes the one-third trial lawyers generally keep from their awards and settlements, that’s more than $7 million.
“I can’t complain. It’s been a pretty good year,” Byrd says, a twinkle in his blue eyes. “But the year ain’t over yet.”
Success for the 53-year-old lawyer, a onetime shoe salesman, says a lot about his determination to excel. And with the much-debated patients’ bill of rights moving through Congress, critics might say it also shows how much money trial lawyers can make suing health-care providers and insurance companies.
Byrd, however, says the bill, pushed through the U.S. Senate by his friend and fellow lawyer John Edwards, isn’t about wealthy lawyers getting richer.
That, he says, is what lobbyists for health maintenance organizations and insurance companies want people to believe. Byrd, one of the state’s top medical malpractice and personal injury lawyers, says all the new bill will do is make HMO “bean counters” pay for their mistakes, just like any other business that harms someone.
“Lawyers are people who are easy to dislike until you need one,” says Byrd. “But what (business lobbyists) just don’t seem to understand is, we’re a capitalist country.
“If you don’t want to pay for your mistakes, let the government run everything. But part of being in private business is accepting the responsibility when you do make a mistake.”
Against the odds
Byrd’s results are hardly typical for a Carolinas medical malpractice lawyer.
Most labor in relative obscurity, pursuing complex, hard-to-prove allegations on behalf of injured or deceased patients and their families. Experts say most medical malpractice cases never make it to trial, and N.C. doctors win four out of every five that do.
But Byrd, a lawyer for 28 years, says he has won most of his trials and has logged more successful settlements than he can remember. With his ever-fattening bank account, he pampers himself with Armani suits and gives liberally to the colleges he attended, Methodist College in Fayetteville and Wake Forest University, where he finished law school.
With his law partner, Greensboro lawyer Sally Lawing, he has reached the top of the high-pressure world of medical malpractice litigation. He pursues cases not just in Fayetteville, but across the Carolinas, Virginia, Tennessee and Georgia.
A former president of the N.C. Academy of Trial Lawyers, he recently won the group’s highest honor, the Walter Clark Award.
“He just does an excellent job in the preparation and presentation of his cases,” says Charlotte lawyer Allen Bailey. “I’d say there’s not a lawyer in the state that gets better results consistently in medical malpractice cases than Wade Byrd.”
His multimillion-dollar victories, often noted in newspaper stories that hang framed on his office walls, attract even more clients and cases. That means he can pick only the ones he believes in most strongly. And with the help of a registered nurse, a retired insurance adjuster and a former hospital administrator, he spots the winners.
“We take 2 percent of the cases we look at,” Byrd says. “The odds are stacked against you, so you’d better not only be good at what you do, you’d better be careful which cases you take.”
‘A brutal sport’
Earlier this year, he and Lawing won an $8 million verdict against a former Charlotte psychiatrist accused of negligence in the suicide of a Concord man. They also won a $15 million settlement on behalf of a patient whose neck allegedly was broken as hospital workers tried to put a tube down his windpipe.
Byrd says he has a case scheduled for trial in Charlotte this fall involving allegations of negligence against The Willows, a psychiatric hospital where a 13-year-old boy hanged himself in 1996.
Byrd, who is suing on behalf of the boy’s parents, says such cases are all about helping ordinary people fight big insurance companies that cover doctors for malpractice.
Stephen Keene, a lobbyist for the N.C. Medical Society, says doctors want new laws that hold HMOs liable for medical decisions such insurers make. But the society, which represents about 11,000 N.C. doctors, doesn’t believe medical malpractice lawyers’ sole motivation is to help average citizens.
“Generally, it’s a very convenient argument for trial lawyers to say they’re for the little people,” Keene says. “But that’s not the complete argument. They have a very strong pecuniary interest in large judgments.”
Byrd says he sees himself as a small businessman. Medical malpractice cases take years to complete, and he invests on average $50,000 to $100,000 to try cases involving death or catastrophic injury. If he loses, he doesn’t get that back.
“A third of nothing is nothing,” he says. “It’s a brutal sport.”
And failure doesn’t just cost money. For Byrd, it’s personal.
“Losing a case is just agony,” he says, grimacing and nearly doubling over in his button-tufted leather chair. “It’s like a woman has rejected me.”
Battling big business
For someone who made his fortune suing hospitals and insurance companies, his life story is littered with ironies.
He was born in Charlotte, one of seven children of an insurance salesman and a registered nurse. His mother battled depression, and a brother committed suicide several years ago.
He grew up in Fayetteville, eager enough to be liked that his junior high school classmates voted him “most popular.” He got more practice as a shoe salesman, a job that helped him pay his way through Methodist College.
He’s still selling himself to juries, a task made easier by his bushy, cowboy mustache and down-home Southern drawl. Even when he’s explaining medical procedures and doctor’s charts to jurors, he still sounds like a good old boy sitting on some front porch explaining the obvious.
One group he doesn’t have to worry about accepting him is Democratic politicians. He gives bushels of money annually, helping Democratic candidates ranging from Edwards to Gov. Mike Easley to former Charlotte Mayor Harvey Gantt.
In 1996, he gave $75,000 to the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, a national group that helps Democratic candidates. He says he’s helping those who look out for average citizens.
“Ordinary people don’t have lobbyists in Raleigh or Washington,” he says. “The people who have the lobbyists are big business, big insurance companies.”
The way things are going, it looks like he’ll have plenty of money to give his friends in the Democratic Party in years to come.
“It was never about money,” Byrd says of his career. “I wanted to be good. I wanted to be the best. The money just followed.”
Eric Frazier: [email protected]
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PHOTO:2 1. TRACY WILCOX – SPECIAL TO THE OBSERVER. Fayetteville trial lawyer Wade Byrd has won an $8 million verdict in a Charlotte medical malpractice trial and a $15 million settlement in another lawsuit in the first six months of this year. 2. Byrd