Wednesday, April 02, 2008


It seems that kudos might be in order for Wal-Mart after its decision not to attempt to collect money that former employee Deborah Shank won in a lawsuit after being permanently disabled in a traffic accident.

Shank was a Wal-Mart employee in 2000, when she was suffered permanent brain damage in the accident. She was covered under the company’s healthcare plan, and the company covered her medical expenses. But when the family won a suit against the trucking company involved in the accident, Wal-Mart sued the Shanks, seeking to be reimbursed for the money it paid out for Deborah’s care.

The practice of seeking reimbursement for healthcare costs from damages victims are awarded in lawsuits is called subrogation. It’s basically one way for insurance companies try to mitigate their risk and collect free money.

Wal-Mart’s insurance policy states that the company is entitled to this money, and the courts agreed. Wal-Mart sued and won. The Shanks appealed and lost. The Supreme Court, which made this ridiculous practice easier in a 2006 decision, refused to face the results of its past action, declining on March 17 not to hear the case.

Legally, Wal-Mart is entitled to collect that money and its decision not to attempt to collect it deserves praise because it brings a measure of peace to a family that so desperately needs it. But that doesn’t mean the decision doesn’t deserve scrutiny.

By pursuing this lawsuit, the company was taking a public-relations beating. Not that it cared: Just last month, after the Supremes turned a blind eye to this case, Wal-Mart mouthpiece Daphne Moore said, “It’s a very sad case, and we understand that people have a very emotional and sympathetic reaction,” but gave no indication that the company was planning to do anything but collect that money.

Another issue, which may better explain Wal-Mart‘s about face, is the practice of subrogation itself. The practice of collecting awards for someone else’s pain and suffering is very lucrative for the insurance industry, and Wal-Mart certainly didn’t want legislators examining the issue, especially when there’s a cause célèbre like the Shank case for them to rally around. It’s entirely possible that pressure was brought to bear by insurers who didn’t want to risk having having this revenue stream legislated away.

This whole mess is just one of many, many damaging commentaries on the state of healthcare in this country. And there are so few success stories unique to our system to balance them out. And this comes at a time when Elizabeth Edwards has called out John McCain for his shitty healthcare proposal. (In attempting to continue the disastrous policies of one “president” Bush, it appears McCain is invoking the campaign slogan of another President Bush: Stay the Course.) This case would not have happened in Canada. Or France. Or Norway. Or Spain. Or England. Or the Netherlands. Or Cuba. Or Portugal. Or Italy. Or Germany. Or Switzerland. Or Poland. Or Brazil. Or Argentina. Or Austria. Or Belgium. Or Bosnia. Or Bulgaria. Or Croatia. Or the Czech Republic. Or Denmark. Or Estonia. Or Finland. Or Georgia. Or Greece. Or Hungary. Or Iceland. Or Ireland. Or Malta, Or Liechtenstein. Or Luxembourg. Or Romania. Or Russia. Or Serbia. Or Slovakia. Or Slovenia. Or Sweden. Or Australia. Or new Zealand. Or Brunei. Or India. Or Kuwait. Or Qatar. Or the United Arab Emirates. Or Saudi Arabia. Or Israel. Or Japan. Or Malaysia. Or South Korea. Or Seychelles. Or Sri Lanka. Or Taiwan. Or Thailand. Or Chile. Or Costa Rica. Or Uruguay.

(I just have to point out that I copied and pasted most of that list. But even just typing “Or” took a while. I’m glad that so many countries have sensible healthcare, but it’s so disappointing that we are not among them.)

Anyway, I’m glad Wal-Mart decided to let the Shanks put those funds toward Deborah’s care. I’m on the record as skeptical about its motives, but at the end of the day — nearly three years after suing the Shanks and nearly eight years after Deborah’s horrible accident — the company did the right thing. And, for the Shanks, that’s probably all that matters.

God bless the Shank family.

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