For most attorneys, there will always be select cases that stand out in their memory as unique for any number of reasons. Those are the cases that have become tried and true “war stories” and are dusted off at parties and events. However, not every attorney can boast that one of their most memorable cases went on to become a wildly successful true-crime podcast and ultimately an NBC television series.
Texas attorney, Kay Van Wey of Van Wey & Williams Trial Law Firm, boasts a career widely characterized by outstanding cases and newsworthy verdicts. On the heels of the premiere of the new NBC show, Dr. Death, a series based in part by one of Kay’s most well-known cases, we were able to sit down with Ms. Van Wey to talk about her intriguing career, the world of medical malpractice and what drives her to seek justice for her clients.
CF: Let's start from the beginning, what made you want to become an attorney?
KVW: When I was about 14 years old I decided that I wanted to run for student council, and I guess you could say that I was a student council nerd because that just lit me up. I realized that I loved being in leadership and I loved being able to make a difference. I ended up going to college on a leadership scholarship at the University of Oklahoma and it just seemed like a logical thing to then become a lawyer, because it would allow me to become an advocate for others. I didn’t come from a family of lawyers; I was the first in the family and I have to say my parents were a little taken aback when my second internship in law school was with the Oklahoma District Attorneys’ Office Sex Crimes Division.
CF: That must have been a really interesting introduction to the legal profession! Your first internship in law school was with a medical malpractice attorney. Is that what sparked your interest in medical malpractice?
KVW: Yes, but I should preface this story by saying that when I was a kid, I wanted to be a veterinarian because I grew up with horses and I loved animals. When I was in law school, and looking for my first internship, I really lucked into a clerkship with a very famous medical malpractice attorney in Oklahoma City. It was while I was working at this internship, and getting exposure to medical malpractice, that I realized that there was a career that could combine law and medicine and it was at that time that I decided that I wanted to be a medical malpractice attorney.
But of course, just because I “declared” that I wanted to become a medical malpractice lawyer doesn’t mean that I instantly became a medical malpractice lawyer. First, I worked as a prosecutor and then as a criminal defense lawyer. I then cut my teeth on bread-and-butter personal injury cases for years and years to be able to have the chops to handle complex medical malpractice cases, and to be able to attract clients with the confidence that I could handle those cases.
CF: It seems like a strong desire to be an advocate for others was a motivating force in the early days of your career. Would you say that it remains the reason behind why you practice?
KVW: I would say that my “why” has definitely evolved over the years. Initially, I was just so excited that I able to go in front of a jury and plead my case. Then my career, as most lawyers will identify with, took a turn into those “earning years” where I was determined to get myself set financially. Now though, I do what I do because I love people and I love the people on my team. I really enjoy being able to mentor my team. Obviously not everyone wants to be mentored, but I like working with people who want to learn more and I get a lot of joy out of those relationships. I also love my clients and they become a part of the fabric of me.
CF: Since you began practicing law, have you seen the role of women in this industry change significantly?
KVW: Yes, I think things have improved for women in this industry since I first started out as a young law student, getting my first internship in the early 1980s. You know that old quote that about Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers, “Sure he was great, but don’t forget that Ginger Rogers did everything he did, backwards and in high heels” I feel like that’s very applicable to being a woman in the legal industry. It’s not that women don’t have opportunities in this industry, it’s just that we have to do everything backwards and in high heels and often times for half the pay!
CF: That’s so true! Changing gears, you’ve spoken about how interesting you find medical malpractice cases—what would you say has been your most memorable case? Would it be your work against Dr. Christopher Duntsch, AKA “Dr. Death?”
KVW: Well to be honest, Dr. Duntsch was not the first cocaine-addicted spine surgeon that I ever sued. About a decade before Duntsch, I represented about nine patients of a spine surgeon in Dallas who, like Duntsch, left a trail of carnage. The difference in that case, as opposed to the Duntsch case, is that the case focused on how this doctor was allowed to stay at a financially-struggling hospital that kept allowing him to take unsupervised urine drug tests. This doctor would wear a vile of someone else’s urine around his neck to his drug tests, so that it would be warm, and he would use that urine to pass his drug tests. Finally, the hospital stopped and thought why do these horrible outcomes keep happening with this surgeon’s patients so they asked him to come in for a hair sample drug test. He came back the next day without a single hair on his body.
CF: That’s incredible. So, while the Duntsch case may not be your most memorable case, it might be your most well-known. What do you think made that case stand out to the extent that it did?
KVW: The injuries in the Duntsch case were unlike anything that I, or any other doctor, had ever seen. They were not instances of careless mistakes or judgment errors, or even that the wrong surgical method was used. Another thing about the Duntsch case is that it has high entertainment value for people who are interested in true crime. The fact that it blew up the way it did and became a podcast, and now a TV show, I think comes down to Michelle Shugart who picked it up and worked her tail off to get the case in front of a criminal jury. What I am really trying to do is take all the publicity surrounding the case and educate the public that a doctor like Duntsch is not a one-in-a-million situation, and to advocate for changes in the way that information about our healthcare providers is made available to the public.
CF: You’ve spoken in the past about how patients often times trust healthcare providers to have their best interests in mind when referring them to see another doctor, but that that is not always the case.
KVW: Yes, I think that patients often overlook the fact that when a doctor is referring them to a surgeon or a specialist, they are often motivated by other factors. Examples include insurance concerns or because the doctors are in an institutional network, like a hospital system or large practice, that wants its doctors to refer patients to its other providers. Sadly, I would say that often times a referral is made out of business concerns rather than what is in the best interest of the patient. But even if a patient were to do their own due diligence on a referral, many times the information that they really need in order to make an informed decision is secret.
CF: Can you expand on that?
KVW: I like to remind people that patients are like consumers. In general, consumers are becoming more and more savvy as more information becomes available on the internet. For example, if you were going to go buy a refrigerator you could go online and compare models from various companies side-by-side, and then make an informed decision. The same is not true when choosing a physician because as I said, most of the important information is kept secret.
And although there are efforts underway to change this, I don’t believe that there will be any substantial change in the openness of the medical field in my lifetime. On my docket right now, we have a case where a hospital had never done a certain complex procedure before and I have another case where the doctor had never done a particular procedure. As the consumer, as the patient, wouldn’t you want to know that you’re going to be the doctor’s or the hospital’s first patient undergoing a certain procedure? I just think that patients have the right to know the historical outcomes from surgeries performed by their doctors.
Read more about other prominent female attorneys that we have profiled, visit our Women in the Law article series here.
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