Listen, Answer the Question, and Shut Up
Hiller Zobel, LLB, a retired judge and co-author of an updated book on doctors and the law, discusses how physicians can best help themselves when medical malpractice is alleged.
Doctors who do well in the operating room or emergency department don’t necessarily do well on the witness stand.
So retired Massachusetts Superior Court Associate Justice Hiller Zobel and Stephen N. Rouse, MD, childhood friends, decided to write a book to demystify the process for both defendants and expert witnesses.
Doctors & the Law, first published in 1993, has been updated for the digital age, with an e-book version and advice on dealing with issues raised by cell phones and the Internet.
The update, subtitled, “A guide for physicians entering uncharted waters,” was published earlier this year by CRICO, a group of companies owned by Harvard medical institutions to serve their medical communities.
Judge Zobel spoke with HealthLeaders about the updated book recently. The transcript below has been lightly edited.
HLM: Why did you decide to write this book?
Judge Zobel: I had seen enough doctors on the stand, not just in malpractice cases, but generally, to know that they could use a little help in being a witness.
HLM: What is the most important message of the book?
Judge Zobel: The general message to a doctor who's sued is: Of course, you think the world is ending, but it really isn’t and things are better than you think.
This book will help you to deal with what is a traumatic experience. The chief message to a doctor who is testifying or is an expert witness is this: Listen to the question, understand the question, answer the question and shut up.
HLM: Why do they need to shut up?
Judge Zobel: Doctors, particularly doctors who are sued, feel that it is essential for them to explain everything. In doing that, they expose themselves to further cross-examination and serious pitfalls. As an expert, they expose themselves to being cut up [by the opposing lawyer] and, in essence, discredited.