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Commentary

When Fear Is Deadly
Phillip K. Howard, New York Sun, 3-14-06

Howard, the founder of Common Good, argues that America’s sue-first, ask questions later culture has undermined the quality of American health care, and, in one case at least, helped shield a serial killer from the authorities.

Earlier this month, Charles Cullen, the nurse who pleaded guilty to killing at least 29 patients in hospitals in New Jersey and Pennsylvania, was sentenced to 11 consecutive life terms. He is no longer a danger to society, but the underlying problem that allowed him to kill still is.

During his 16-year nursing career, Cullen was able to move from one hospital to another - to 10 medical facilities in all - because fear of litigation prevented those hospitals from giving him a bad reference. Co-workers observed his strange behavior, and caught him in rooms of patients with medications that weren't appropriate. But they didn't know he was murdering people, and couldn't prove that he was doing something illegal. So the hospitals would eventually let him go, and, when the next hospital in line asked for a reference, merely gave the stock response of all employers nowadays: "We confirm that he worked here from this to that date."
Even the Pennsylvania Department of State, which oversees the state nursing board and had been warned about Cullen's penchant for diverting medications, could not comment on his reputation. "Legally, we can't speak about any information we receive that doesn't result in disciplinary action," a spokesman said. …
Our modern sensibility is to worry about the unfairness of a mean-spirited supervisor trying to sabotage someone's career. But our fear of occasional unfairness has now led to a tidal wave of unfairness, where good people aren't honored and bad people get away with murder.


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