Why There Is No Such Thing as an “Accident”
Negligence Is Not an Accident – It’s a Choice
“For years our country has accepted unintentional injuries as an unavoidable reality. The truth is, there is no such thing as an accident. Every single one of these deaths was preventable. We know what to do to save lives, but collectively we have failed to prioritize safety at work, at home, and on the road.” So stated Deborah A. P. Hersman, president and CEO of the National Safety Council (NSC), in a news release lamenting the fact that unintentional injuries are now the third leading cause of death in the United States.
She brings up a very good point, one that Leventhal & Puga, P.C. often makes, both to our clients and our opponents: there are no such things as accidents.
Even the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) doesn’t rely on the term “accidents” to tabulate certain deaths. Unintentional death or injury is a more accurate term, because, except in cases of assault, homicide, or suicide, ALL deaths are unexpected and unintentional. However, calling something an “accident” implies that it happened randomly, by chance, and there’s nothing anyone could have done to prevent it. It’s a way of linguistically shrugging your shoulders and negating responsibility.
An article written by Christopher Peterson, Ph.D., in Psychology Today, points out, “Researchers do not typically use the term accident in their papers…‘Accident’ has a very clear connotation of randomness, and if you can predict accidents, then they are not random. Researchers, instead, opt for more clunky, but less misleading terms, like ‘traumatic mishaps.’”
The trial attorneys at Leventhal & Puga, P.C., prefer terms such as “crash, collision, failure to follow order, failure to uphold the duty of care,” and many others that more accurately describe what has happened to our personal injury clients. There’s usually a chain of errors that ultimately led to our clients’ injuries, and these errors were always foreseeable. For example, what did this medical center think was going to happen when they gave a patient an epidural with a drug that was clearly labeled “Not for epidural use”?
Or, in an ongoing case we are handling for a client, what would happen if a Denver medical center did not sterilize its surgical instruments, which were found to be contaminated with previous patients’ biological material and other residue? As a result, our client (a doctor at the very same medical center) suffered a surgical site infection and nearly died.
In 2015, unintentional injuries claimed at least 146,571 lives in the United States, according to the CDC. The NSC put the number at 161,374 deaths—and 44 million preventable injuries. The toll is too high. Let’s put our foot down and agree: there are no accidents.
There Are No Medical Accidents.
Leventhal & Puga, P.C., has strong opinions on this matter. Time and time again, we see people seriously harmed by hospital-borne infections, preventable falls, bedsores, misdiagnoses, adverse drug reactions, and more. What do these injuries have in common? With proper care, they were preventable. We find that most of these errors occur because the hospital:
- Did not have enough staff to cover an emergency situation.
- Staff did not adequately communicate with fellow medical staff or patients.
- Did not double-check and ensure that orders, procedures, diagnoses, etc. were correct.
- Did not sanitize equipment, hospital environments, or the hands of staff adequately.
In a recent case we were asked to look at, a woman died mysteriously at a “cancer center”—which, it turns out, was unlicensed, unaccredited, and not under the jurisdiction of the state health department. The woman’s daughter and son believe their mother may have received too much radiation at once, or worse, been neglected by staff and choked to death on mucus while restrained to the bed, unable to sit up. The center immediately attempted to cover up the incident.
This type of system-wide failure leads to far too many injuries and deaths in this country’s hospitals and clinics.
There Are No Vehicle Accidents.
Saying something tame like “car accident” can obfuscate what really happened on that dark, city road—like a drunk driver crashing into a family of four, killing them instantly. There is a growing movement to redefine the language we use to describe vehicle crashes. According to a joint statement by Families for Safe Streets and Transportation Alternative in New York:
“Before the labor movement, factory owners would say ‘it was an accident’ when American workers were injured in unsafe conditions. Before the movement to combat drunk driving, intoxicated drivers would say ‘it was an accident’ when they crashed their cars. Planes don’t have accidents. They crash. Cranes don’t have accidents. They collapse. And as a society, we expect answers and solutions. Traffic crashes are fixable problems, caused by dangerous streets and unsafe drivers. They are not accidents. Let’s stop using the word ‘accident’ today.”
We understand the knee-jerk reaction to call something an accident. In our personal lives, we all use that term a great deal. But there’s a time and a place to use that phrase. When a driver is busy texting on her phone, and runs over two children crossing the street, it’s not appropriate or accurate to say what happened was an accident. It was a tragic incident resulting from the poor, negligent choices of the driver.
There Are No Nursing Home Accidents.
Consider an elderly woman who has chronic hip pain and lives in a nursing home. After a few weeks, she develops a new and dangerous issue: pressure or decubitus ulcers, also known as “bedsores.” By the time the staff catches it, her skin is deeply infected and requires emergency surgery. Certainly, what happened to her was unintentional. No one wanted it to happen. But was it an “accident”? No. It was neglect.
There’s a relatively easy way to prevent pressure ulcers—moving the patient regularly, about every two hours. And it’s been an approved method since the 1800s. Now, there are newfangled mattresses that help distribute pressure, and most hospitals have timeframes in place for when they need to move each bed, or wheelchair-bound, patient.
But, according to the Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality, more than 2.5 million Americans develop pressure ulcers each year. While bedsores start out small, they can quickly become infected, allowing bacteria to spread from the wound into the bloodstream. The end result? Sepsis, organ failure, and sometimes, death. Emergency amputation is sometimes the only remedy.
There Are No Product Accidents.
When lithium ion batteries in cellphones began catching on fire, it’s not an accident; there was a scientific reason behind it. It is the responsibility of a product’s manufacturer to extensively test devices before putting them on the market.
The same is true for makers of pharmaceutical drugs and medical devices, which have the potential to cause extreme harm if defective. It wasn’t an accident when a French company switched from medical-grade silicon to industrial-grade silicon in its breast implants—it was a cost-cutting measure. Later, the contaminants in those implants were linked to an increased risk of inflammation, cancer, and other toxic exposure.
Unfortunately, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC) seem to have their hands full, and lots of defective products end up on store shelves (Have a look at the current CPSC recall list).
There Are No Premises Accidents.
Property owners and businesses have a duty to ensure their premises are reasonably safe for visitors.
In December 2017, a ski lift at a resort outside of Denver ejected a mother and her two daughters into the hard-packed snow 25 feet below. Prior to the fatal tragedy, several guests, including two engineers who lived nearby, had complained to the resort about the unsafe lift. Nothing was done. Leventhal & Puga, P.C. attorney Jim Leventhal called that gross negligence. “They made a conscious decision that their revenue was more important than the safety of families and people getting onto that lift.”
Ignoring problems doesn’t make what happens next “an accident.”
Technology Is No Excuse.
Though the fatal fall from the ski lift was partially blamed on the lift’s recently modified motor, that doesn’t absolve the company from liability for what happened.
Assume a driverless car crashes into a pedestrian. Many legal and ethical issues will arise, but the point remains: it was a human who was ultimately responsible for the error. A human programmed the vehicle, oversaw its creation, and conducted its field testing.
We at Leventhal & Puga, P.C., do not believe in “accidents,” and for a good reason. Everything that has happened to our clients, happened as the result of a choice—either conscious or unconscious. We demand that hospitals, governments, corporations, and individuals take ownership of this and ask themselves a reasonable question: Could somebody get hurt?
If the answer is “Yes,” and the injury could have been prevented, what happened was NOT an accident. At Leventhal & Puga, P.C., our mission is to hold negligent parties responsible for the injuries they cause. For a free case evaluation, please call (877) 433-3906. We handle serious injury cases across the United States.