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"Don and I were in no position to finance this litigation on our own," she says.
They filed suit in September 1997. They soon learned through court depositions that their doctor had acknowledged but ignored the rupture of Wilson's uterus and failed to read Chris' fetal heart monitor -- despite knowing the risks of the delivery.
Mary Wilson flatly recites her story as she reads from eight type-written pages. Don quietly sits next to her, his elbows resting on the dining room table's vinyl, child-proof covering. His chin rests in his hands. Sometimes he moves to cross his arms. He rarely looks up.
At one point after his birth, Chris was seeing six separate doctors, a nutritionist and physical therapists. If he is lucky he will some day be able to operate a motorized wheelchair. The 6-year-old cannot sit up, crawl, stand or walk by himself. He cannot use the bathroom by himself or even scoop food from his plate to his mouth.
"At this point, we're kind of past hoping that any of that is going to happen," Mary says. Doctors have told the Wilsons that it's doubtful their son will ever speak. "That was like getting punched in the other side of your face."
Chris can operate a device attached to his chair that plays a pre-recorded message by pressing his head against it. They're still working with him to train him to use it at appropriate times and not just bang away at it. And he can definitely register his displeasure. While his parents are being interviewed, Chris wails like an ambulance when the videocassette he's watching ends.
Mary can talk about their situation with an almost chipper detachment. And Don makes it clear how much they love their son -- even if he didn't turn out the way they had imagined.
But perhaps the most powerful part of the conversation with the Wilsons is Don's general reluctance to speak at all. When you look at him, thickly built and recalcitrant, you realize what's been on his mind. He's thought of killing the doctor who hurt his son. He still thinks of it.
That would feel like justice. The pre-trial settlement is only a meager substitute. But it is the system we have, a mechanism developed to prevent people from settling their disputes in the streets, says University of Georgia law professor Tom Eaton.
In this system, you imagine that the world is made up of two types of actions -- consensual and non-consensual. This is how a lawyer might consider it. Inside that world of non-consensual acts, you figure out what is tort and what is criminal. Cases like the Wilsons' fit into some gray area, says Emory law professor Tim Terrell. There's a prevailing public interest and the possibility for punitive damages, for punishment, both of which are usually found in criminal cases.
In plain English, the world Georgia legislators are about to enter is a complicated one. Philosophers such as distinguished Notre Dame professor Alasdair MacIntyre would argue that it's inherently wrong to equate money award with the suffering Chris' injuries have caused him and his parents. It's like trying to replace apples with oranges.
But it's accepted practice that pain and suffering can be compensated, and that a jury of 12 impartial strangers who, in their everyday lives likely couldn't agree on a favorite color, should determine how much that compensation should be.
And tort reform proponents aren't debating that pain and suffering can be compensated. Even though that would be a more coherent argument.
Instead, they've decided that $250,000 is the price of Chris' suffering and the lifelong impact it will have on his parents.
"The idea that pain and suffering could be worth $250,000 but no more is by its own terms an admission of a limitation on justice," says Northwestern University law professor Steven Lubet. "If you push that a little bit, you'd have to say, it doesn't make any more sense than a limit on economic damages. Why allow unlimited economic damages? Why not say, 'Well, we're willing to pay for a $1,000 wheelchair but not a $5,000 wheelchair.'"
But merely changing the way we decide what justice is -- from case-by-case to one-size-fits-all -- isn't the worst part of tort reform. The Wilsons would be a best-case scenario under a change in Georgia's tort laws because an attorney would still be likely to argue their case. A lawyer would take it because Chris is looking at a lifetime of medical care and lost wages. Big bucks. So there's some place from which to deduct the costs of bringing a case to trial and the contingency fee that pays the attorney.
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