Barry Werth's 'Damages': truth is the victim

March 01, 1998|By Kate Shatzkin | Kate Shatzkin,SUN STAFF

"Damages," by Barry Werth. Simon & Schuster. 384 pages. $25.

It's inevitable that Barry Werth's solid chronicle of a family's seven-year struggle to win legal compensation for a severely disabled son will be compared to "A Civil Action," Jonathan Harr's brilliant best-seller about the life of a protracted lawsuit. And "Damages," Werth's book, inevitably will suffer from that comparison.

That's too bad, because "Damages" deserves to be read. Werth, a science writer who is the author of "The Billion-Dollar Molecule," has tackled an inscrutable subject that affects all Americans: medical malpractice litigation. He's done it through the eyes of Donna and Tony Sabia, a working-class Connecticut couple who wanted to find out what turned their son, Little Tony, into a barely functioning shadow of a child, unable to speak, walk or eat by himself.

What the Sabias learn in the end is that while they might get money, they'll never get what they wanted from this wrenching exercise: the truth.

Werth skillfully leads the reader through the complex terrain of the Sabias' suit against Norwalk Hospital, where Donna Sabia gave birth to twins. One of them, named Michael, was already dead. Little Tony was barely alive, his blood drained into the body of his stillborn brother. A $40 ultrasound, the Sabias' lawyer contended, could have told the hospital the twins were in trouble in time to save them. The hospital, and the doctor who delivered the boys believed just as strongly that they could not have prevented what happened.

"Damages" itself suffers, at times, from an irregular heartbeat. Because he has come late to the drama he describes, Werth cannot help being somewhat distanced even from his main characters.

His frequent use of partial quotations, especially as a device to help the Sabias describe themselves, makes at times for a bumpy read. On the first page, for example, the reader learns that Donna, at 24, had been on her own "a long time."

It's an upstanding act of journalism to scrupulously attribute descriptions - other narrative nonfiction writers have been criticized for taking liberties with "recreations" of what a character was thinking. But it makes for distraction, pulling the reader back from the story. In the end, I felt I knew the case that bore the Sabias' name, but not the people at the center of it.

On the other hand, Werth was able to write from many more perspectives than was Harr, who focused his work almost solely on plaintiffs' lawyer Jan Schlichtmann. Werth shows his readers the obstetrician eternally bitter over what she considered an unfair suit; the nervous midwife; the big-name defense strategist brought in at the case's end; the associate who zealously believes the hospital did no wrong.

The most intriguing character is Dr. Kurt Benirschke, an expert retained by the Sabias whose medical opinions are parsed by each side to its advantage. Benirschke's frustration with the violation that legal posturing does to the truth is palpable and revelatory. He embodies the dissatisfaction at the heart of our country's litigation explosion: the law's expensive promise of answers to questions that, in the end, may have none.

Kate Shatzkin covers criminal justice and legal issues for The Sun. Previous to that she studied at Yale Law School and has spent much of her ten years as a journalist reporting on legal and social issues.

Pub Date: 3/01/98

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