Thursday, July 28, 2011

A Feast for Crows by George R. R. Martin

This is book 4 of a long series – I’m not going to withhold any spoilers for previous books, so be warned.

In the fantastic opening of Patton, the indomitable George C. Scott gives a gung-ho speech which concludes that no matter how bad the fighting is, when the soldiers are asked by their grandchildren what they did during the great World War 2, they’ll be able to say they served in Patton’s Third Army instead of having to admit that they were simply a guy who spent the whole time shoveling shit in Louisiana.  I guess Martin thought that this was unfair because here we have the story of that shit-shoveling man, in great detail.

Okay, maybe that’s a low blow.  After reading A Storm of Swords I finally understood what the admirers of this series saw in it, after reading this one I understand all the detractors.  This book came out in 2005, nearly four years after the third book in the series, and was something of a kludge to begin with.  Apparently the writing of the fourth book was spinning out of control and his editor suggested that he spin off some of the chapters into this fourth volume and save some of the other characters for the fifth novel.  At the time he said that he’d probably have the fifth one finished in a year or so – which subsequently dragged out until July 2011.  So if I didn’t have that fifth book already waiting on my bookshelf this one would have probably made me upset.

There are really two main overarching plotlines in this series:

1)    Who (if anyone) will successfully claim and hold the Iron Throne and rule the continent of Westeros (if anything is left of it); and

2)    What exactly is the threat posed by the Others beyond the Wall, can they be stopped, and will anyone actually do it.

A Feast for Crows doesn’t really advance either of these plots.  Instead we focus on some secondary characters doing minor arcs.  Samwell Tarly is ordered to go to the Citadel and get trained up because the Night’s Watch needs more maesters.  He has some minor difficulty getting there but manages to start his training.  Brienne of Tarth is trying to recover Sansa Stark and Arya Stark as her last sworn duty to their mother, but she doesn’t know where they are and has no idea where to take them if she does find them.  Consequently she doesn’t have a lot of luck.  Arya Stark is actually in the east and enters an order of assassins, who train her.  Sansa Stark is living in her late aunt’s castle and taking lessons in statecraft from Petyr Baelish, who is something of a weird creep but isn’t actively hurting her.  Also, there is some intrigue from the Viking-like Ironmen and the desert kingdom of Dorne, who hatch various plots and counter plots that don’t really accomplish a whole lot but may throw spanners in the future.

There’s a lot of focus on the Lannister twins in this one.  This is the first time that we see into Cersei’s head, and it’s about as screwed-up as you might imagine from her previous behavior.  She’s Queen Regent on behalf of her youngest son Tommen and is now ready to rule the kingdom, but unfortunately she’s terrible at it.  Cersei might be the poster child for the Dunning-Krueger Effect; she’s been watching the use of power for so long that she thinks it is easy.  She confuses personal loyalty to her with competence and is consequently surrounded by a bunch of yes-men and grifters.  Cersei manages to lose the advice and affections of most of her close allies.  She doesn’t consider the long term effects of her actions, and she makes a lot of unnecessary enemies by insulting and belittling people for no reason because she assumes that she’s more powerful than they are and they can’t (or won’t) do anything about it.  In addition she’s also become very paranoid following the deaths of her father and oldest son and makes a bunch of questionable moral choices.  I wouldn’t say that she’s lost her mind exactly but she’s definitely unstable, and it’s pretty clear that she doesn’t have enough personal power to get away with this behavior for long.  I thought that Martin did a pretty excellent job of portraying her mindset but at the same time it was pretty unpleasant and you just want to have her committed and bleach your brain.

Jaime Lannister was the standout character in this one, in my opinion.  He’s always been presented as a pretty morally dubious individual but his perspective on things is pretty interesting.  Jaime is a fighter, possibly one of the best there’s ever been, and his whole character is tied up in that identity.  Pretty much everyone considers him unscrupulous for killing the king he was supposed to guard, but as it turns out he had a pretty good reason for what he did and he doesn’t feel like he owes an explanation for it.  At the same time he’s definitely done a bunch of horrible things and his occasional good deeds don’t really make up for it.  He’s suffering from a strange sort of meta-guilt at this point; he doesn’t really feel bad about his son dying or any of his bad deeds in particular, but he feels like he should probably feel bad about it.  I guess that’s a first step.  Now that he’s lost his sword hand he is trying to get back in some fighting shape and having to introspect a little, probably for the first time in his life.  So he’s trying to figure out what a good person might do in his situation and do something approximately like that.  He’s not really all that relatable but he is very entertaining.

I felt that this may very well have been the strongest written of the novels so far.  However, there are a couple of annoying things adding up over time.  Due to the POV style, there’s often a situation in which a character will learn that someone else has died or has been killed.  This is almost always untrue unless this person is actually seen to die by the POV character, and even then it’s questionable.  Fine, unreliable narrator, I get it, but it’s used way too often for my taste that someone previously reported dead will waltz back in stage right.  For that matter the books have an almost nihilistic streak to them – you know something bad is going to happen to anyone whenever something starts to go well for them, and the really bad people seem to have plot armor protecting them.  For that matter, there’s been a lot of attrition among the cast and some of their replacements either don’t measure up or are slightly silly.  Qyburn, for instance, is an affable enough torturer and vivisectionist but his mad scientist skills would really seem to fit in better in a different novel.  I guess that it mostly fits in with the gradually accelerating supernaturalism of the series, which may or may not be related to the advance of the Others and the rebirth of the dragons.  We’re not really told.

There were a lot of threads left hanging at the end of the third book, and they are all left exactly where they were.  I don’t think that Martin “owes” his readers anything in the sense that there’s any basis to complain if he’s not writing fast enough, but at the same time I want to have a satisfying experience by whatever criteria I choose when I read something.  I’m pretty sure that if I’d read this book in 2005 that I would have been pretty annoyed that this was where it ended up, but as it is I can have the hope that it does make half of an excellent story.

Friday, July 22, 2011

A Storm of Swords by George R. R. Martin

This is the third book in a long series so I’m not going to conceal any spoilers of events which happened in the first two novels.  Be warned.

I was a late arrival to this series, which is strange because it’s generally the sort of thing that I’d be into.  A Storm of Swords was nominated for a Hugo in 2001 (losing to Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire, surprisingly) and I know a lot of fans of the series.  Many of the fans I don’t personally know-and there are many- are vocal.  I’m not afraid of lengthy books, or dark and depressing books, or long series, but perhaps some combination of all three put a chill into my heart.  I don’t know.  And then there were the complaints that I’d heard that he wasn’t ever going to finish the novels, as indicated by the fact that the fifth book out of a planned seven just came out now, eleven years after the publication date of this third novel in the series (and which I’m rapidly working my way up to).  But when I heard that HBO was making a series based on it I decided to suck it up and get started on A Game of Thrones, and then promptly put it away again for a while.

For some reason it was reminding me of Dune, and not in a good way.  In that book the heroes are the House Atreides and the villains are the House Harkonnen.  However, they’re both involved in a quasi-feudal land rush and their tactics aren’t all that different, so Frank Herbert introduces Vladimir Harkonnen as a homosexual (scandalous enough in 1965) and a pederast to boot, who engages in casual cruelties and whose advisers are a succession of drugged-out freaks, just in case you don’t know who to root for.  Dune is one of my all-time favorite novels, but at the same time it’s sort of a cheap shot to make your heroes heroic by not necessarily showing them doing good deeds but just making your villains extra depraved.  And what had just happened in A Game of Thrones when I set it aside was that a seven year old boy had been thrown off a tower for witnessing the queen committing incest with her brother.  I think we can probably all agree that it’s hard to get behind incestuous child murderers regardless of what other fine qualities they may have.  I felt that Ned Stark, who was being built up as the hero here, was also pretty unlikable and chilly (being introduced personally committing an execution), and that this was just to make him look better by comparison.  I thought, I don’t need this, and moved on to other things.

But then I was advised to give it another shot and I got through it this time.  I think that I will say I have a grudging respect for this series now rather than love for it.  You get used to the somewhat stilted diction and language and weird social mores and just sort of go with it.  The POV writing style lets you know what everyone’s thinking, often in somewhat excessive detail as they have conversations, but it does give good insight as to everyone’s motivations, which are many and varied.  And that’s what I was missing the first time through, I think.  This book is a lot like real life, there aren’t any “good guys”, but there sure are a lot of really bad ones.

Anyway, in this book the series really hits its stride.  The so called War of the Five Kings is starting to enter its endgame, although perhaps that’s something of a misnomer.  Only three of the five kings asserted their right to rule the entire kingdom; two just wanted to have their own fiefdoms without feudal obligations, and Renly Baratheon (one of the former) didn’t make it this far.  Robb Stark (one of the latter) is still in the game but is in the unfortunate position of having his home base taken by the other non-universal claiming king at the same time he pissed off one of his major allies by breaking a marriage contract, so he’s in the unfortunate position of never losing a battle but steadily going down in the world.  Stannis Baratheon’s power is broken but he’s still got a basically unconquerable fortress and a sorceress who has apparently legitimate supernatural powers.  Still, things are looking up for Joffrey Baratheon, who is not actually the son of the former king but inherited like he is, and his family, the powerful and rich Lannister clan.

One of the things that the series does really well is deconstruct this genre right down to its toenails.  In The Lord of the Rings the bad guys are actually nightmarish orcs, literally non-human enemies who there’s no point in talking peace with.  You’ve got those sort of enemies in Westeros too, but amazingly enough all the humans are ignoring them in favor of wearing their strength down in their own petty quarrels.  You understand that Robb Stark won’t make peace with the Lannisters because they had his father killed, but for the peasants on the field it doesn’t make too much difference what allegiance is owed by the riders who come through and mess up their village.  The women may have been safe around Aragorn but most of the foot soldiers in this world appear to be pretty awful and the bandits and starvation that follow behind serve no man.  It’s also nice to see poor medical care make an appearance in a fantasy novel – they’ve got somewhat more medical knowledge than you might expect given the technology, but any cut can get infected and people do die of disease, even strong and battle-tested important characters.

For that matter, all the main characters agree on most of the important parts, such as that there will be feudal obligations of some sort and probably a king of some kind, the only question is to who will be playing what roles.  This leads to interesting questions about who you’d actually want in charge in a world like this.  You’d rather go drinking with Robert Baratheon than Tywin Lannister, but Tywin is actually pretty good at administrating and Robert was a weak king if not a bad one.   But there are plenty of contenders who are both unpleasant and ineffective.  And you’ve got fairly noble idealists like Robb Stark who are pretty decent people and yet get outmaneuvered by people more unscrupulous than they are.  I guess it’s a Stark family trait.  Then there are a vast number of minor lords who, depending on ambition, want to either keep what they’ve got or become major lords, and their rapidly shifting allegiances drive the main plot since they are the ones with the men that make up the armies that are ravaging the land.

Then in the exotic eastern continent you’ve got Daenarys Targaryen, who has the best claim to the throne of a kingdom she can’t even remember seeing, and who is building an army to retake it . . . for some reason.  Honor, mostly, possibly pride.  Maybe she won’t even get around to it after all since she’s out conquering in the east, but she experiences firsthand how difficult it is to assert rule over people while not getting a little dirt under the fingernails or occasionally having your pet dragons burn people’s faces off.

The dragons aren’t the only thing kicking up the supernatural elements either, there are a couple of instances of folks getting raised from the dead either as zombies by the evil Others or as something else by mysterious means.  There isn’t a whole lot but it is clearly going to be important to the series going forward.

My favorite character of the bunch is Davos, who is an ordinary guy who is doing the best he can with what he has, which is something we can all relate to.  His sworn lord is Stannis Baratheon, who actually has the best claim to the throne behind Daenarys but doesn’t really have enough charisma or imagination to be really effective.  It’s probably too bad, Westeros could do a lot worse than have him as king.  And they probably will. 

Anyway, I’m sold on this so now it’s on to the fourth book.  I can’t say it’s the most fun I’ve had reading lately, but it’s certainly involving enough and, like Stannis, you could certainly do a whole lot worse.

Sunday, July 17, 2011

The HVAC fairy

Apparently I have displeased some dark god whose blood runs with coolant and whose ductile limbs constrict around its enemies, because I'm having to replace my second air conditioning unit in the same year.  Fortunately, my house only contains two so I should be spared this particular chore for ten years or so depending on how everything goes.  In addition to dealing with that I've also been trying to catch up on all the work I've missed while waiting for appointments.  And right now I'm on Book 3 of the Song of Ice and Fire series, so at some point I'll finish that and have something to write about.

Monday, July 11, 2011

13 Assassins

These days when you have a problem with your boss you make a complaint to HR, maybe make a couple of snarky Facebook posts, or complain to your friends about it over happy hour.  But they didn’t have Facebook during the Edo Period so to make a complaint about Lord Naritsugu one of his subordinates commits ritual suicide alongside a list of grievances that he’s got.  This is the first shot of Thirteen Assassins, which I watched this weekend (books are a little sparse at the moment since I’m two books behind the Song of Ice and Fire novels with the fifth one on the way.)

Anyway, this Naritsugu is the half-brother of the Shogun and this whole suicide business is a huge scandal, it makes everyone look bad, but the Shogun has already decided to promote Naritsugu to a close advisor position, so he orders that everyone cover up the whole affair, and he suggests to Naritsugu that no reprisals be taken against the subordinate’s family.  Instead of obeying this advice Naritsugu has all the subordinate’s relatives hog-tied and uses them for archery targets in his living room, thereby totally justifying whatever it was that the subordinate said about him.  Apparently the actor who plays Naritsugu is some sort of pop star, and I’ve got to say he does a great job at portraying this guy as just a 100% horrible prick with no redeeming characteristics whatsoever.  He’s kind of like Caligula or some other famously entitled nobleman, he’s a bored aristocrat and he can do whatever he wants, and what he wants includes rape, murder, amputating limbs, and sometimes all of those in various orders.

The Shogun’s advisors are secretly horrified that Naritsugu is getting away with these latest outrages (and this is before they even find out about the whole target practice thing), but officially they have to abide by the decision to cover up all the incidents and promote him.  Since they all agree that having Naritsugu in any greater position of authority would be a disaster they unofficially decide to have him killed.  This is all in the first ten minutes.

I’d seen a couple of Takashi Miike’s other movies and had heard this one was good, and it is.  It’s a lot unlike some of his other work which has more shock value and ultra-violence.  This one uses some kind of different film stock with added graininess and washed-out colors.  There is a very retro feel to it, it could be any one of many samurai movies made in the 1960s, but it is a good story with great action and furthermore great pacing.  And Miike’s touch shows through in a couple of genuinely shocking scenes like the bit with the poor female peasant whose father led a revolt due to Naritsugu’s tax policy.

The peasant is shown to a samurai named Shinzaemon to induce him to take on the commission to complete the assassination.  He probably doesn’t need much prompting, though, since he is a warrior born into an age of peace and he hates it.  Apparently, Shinzaemon spends his time fishing on the shore because there’s no one to fight, and when asked to take on this project he remarks that fortune has smiled on him by allowing him to finally have a battle to die in.  That’s sort of a strange cultural aspect, I guess, since if I was hiring a guy to do an assassination I’d want the job to get done rather than to have the guy get excited at the prospect of dying while doing it, but he’s clearly the right man for this task so I’ll just go with it.

Then Shinzaemon assembles his team, which is nicely covered in broad strokes since something like this is in every movie ever made about similar subject matter.  He recruits his nephew, who is drinking too much and trying to start fights in a gambling den.  He calls on some old friends who bring along some people they know.  Everyone gets a couple of character moments.  There’s one guy who hears that they’re going to go on some insane suicide mission and is willing to go along if they give him some money to pay off his debts, put a tombstone over his wife’s grave, and have a little fun before they leave.  At first you think that Shinzaemon may be affronted by this, but then they all laugh and say that it “shows spirit” and his services are cheap at the price.  They end up with twelve guys.  Eventually they pick up a 13th in the woods, who is channeling Toshiro Mifune from Seven Samurai and may not actually be a human being.  He thinks fighting is crazy fun, though.

Like any period piece this can be ruined by bringing too much modern sensibility into it.  The nobles give Shinzaemon a big trunk of money to use to accomplish this task, so he could have hired a bunch of mercenaries.  Not to mention the fact that Naritsugu isn’t exactly keeping a low profile and is surrounded by armed men, so Shinzaemon could have just killed him in Edo or bribed one of his men to do it.  For that matter, one of Naritsugu’s enemies has him at gunpoint on a river crossing out in the middle of nowhere at one point and could have him shot.  But there’s honor at stake, no one wants the stigma of killing Naritsugu in a socially unacceptable way, even though no one actually likes him and they are probably all secretly hoping someone gets him or he gets snakebit or dies of typhoid or something.  In fact it’s kind of surprising that the Shogun hasn’t done something about him, since there’s not one other character in the movie who has anything positive at all to say about Naritsugu, he doesn’t appear to have any other allies and everyone either hates him for something he’s done or fears him for something he will inevitably do.  This is toward the end of the Shogunate anyway so my guess is they’re making a point about the ruling elite displaying some poor judgment here.  It's hard to say what advice exactly he's going to bring to the Shogun.

Naritsugu’s chief bodyguard is Hanbei, who trained at the same dojo as Shinzaemon.  Hanbei’s an interesting character and really drives the plot more than anyone.  He took the job with Naritsugu because he was being competitive with Shinzaemon’s own position in the Shogunate.  I guess that word about Naritsugu hadn’t gotten around yet, because Hanbei isn’t into all the unbridled horribleness that goes on.  For his part, Naritsugu treats Hanbei with amused contempt, especially when he’s trying to persuade Naritsugu not to commit some atrocity, always without success.   I’m not entirely sure what the movie thinks about him.  It’s nice that he is trying to uphold the honor of the old samurai code but he’s doing it all for someone who isn’t worthy and in fact thinks Hanbei is ridiculous.  He talks a lot about his honor but it’s really about pride, because he isn’t as respected as Shinzaemon is, and for all his talk Naritsugu couldn’t get away with all his activities if Hanbei wasn’t there to bail him out.  Hanbei could quit, or commit suicide, or honestly just look the other way for five minutes and someone would probably take care of the problem.  Really, Hanbei could have avoided all this unpleasantness by taking his job a little less seriously.

Most of the first two thirds of the movie spends its time setting up the situation and developing the characters, then focusing on the battle of wits between Shinzaemon and Hanbei.  Hanbei correctly figures that his lord has gone too far for the Shogun’s advisors and that some sort of reprisal is coming, then when he hears about Shinzaemon hanging around he’s terrified, because Shinzaemon fights dirty and always wins.  So Hanbei’s subordinates send four goons to spy on the conspiracy and one of the assassins kills all of them in about two seconds.  Intelligence isn’t really the issue here, though, since Shinzaemon basically tells Hanbei he’s going to assassinate Naritsugu on the way back to their clan lands.  Hanbei tries a couple of tricks like hiring a group of mercenaries to attack the assassins (which drives them off the road for a while) and suggesting to Naritsugu that they forgo an expected social call to avoid a couple of good ambush spots.  When Naritsugu refuses, Hanbei takes the sensible precaution of bringing along about 250 men.

Besides the clash with the four goons in Edo and a brief skirmish with the mercenaries, there’s not really a lot of action here.  Instead there’s a lot of reflective, quiet moments and people standing around being awesome.  This is a movie that’s not afraid to take its time, another nice classic touch.

Then the last third of this movie is one of the best action climaxes I’ve ever seen.  Shinzaemon and his guys have fortified a little peasant village and filled it with obstacles and booby traps.  They’re expecting to be facing 70 bodyguards, but when they hear that there are over 200 they just shrug and go with it.  Since they’re all expecting to die anyway, what the hell.  As the thirteen assassins face down all of Naritsugu’s henchmen, there are a lot of long, static camera shots.  American action directors, take note:  1) No shakycam, so you can actually tell which of the 13 assassins is performing an action, and since they are dressed differently than the henchmen and have their own unique fighting styles it’s possible to tell where everyone is; 2) use of establishing shots which let you know who is where, and long shots which clearly demonstrate them moving to different places; and 3) appropriately using timing so that we stay focused on each scene long enough to know what is happening there, then cutting to a different one.  There are no obvious FX shots, at least in the sense that no one is flying or kicking people through walls, although I doubt that the producers really allowed Miike to set any bulls on fire.  Bulls are expensive.  Also, a lot of the shots do show that there are a lot of guys just sort of standing around waiting their turn to get slashed, impaled, arrowed, blown up, etc.  But that’s a genre convention in itself, there’s nothing to be done about that.  Nonetheless, the filmmakers keep the action going steady for 30 or 40 straight minutes while being entirely clear and coherent.

Even in the midst of all this great fighting Naritsugu manages to steal the show.  He’s so ridiculously blasé about the whole situation that it is hilarious.  His guys are getting cut down left and right and he thinks it is neat, that they don’t have any other purpose but to amuse him.  He even says he’s going to start a few wars with his new authority so he can watch more cool battles like this one.  They also resist the temptation to make Naritsugu into an ultimate boss fight, although he's more or less totally oblivious to the notion that he could get killed out there.  He’s an aristocrat who has an entourage of over 200 bodyguards, of course he’s not an awesome fighter, that’s why he needs so much protection.  He’s fine at killing women and children, but a warrior he is not.  Anyway he manages to be a complete jerk throughout this, walking around in a battlefield with a spotless white outfit on, refusing to take the advice of people to seek cover, having his men walk into obvious traps ahead of him, and so forth.  He even thanks Shinzaemon for such an exciting day.  What a great villain for a movie like this.

After the fight it of course wraps up pretty quickly but makes powerful, quick points about the nature of a warrior's life and duty.  This movie probably isn’t for everyone but it’s excellent for its genre and blends great action with a patient sensibility.

Tuesday, July 5, 2011

Seagalology by vern

I could claim to have done a little light reading of Dostoevsky in the original Russian over the Fourth of July weekend, but that would be a terrible, terrible lie. So instead of making up a better story I will admit that I read “Seagology – A Study of the Ass-Kicking Films of Steven Seagal”. This book is by vern, the one-named lower case movie reviewer and self-proclaimed student of badass cinema, whose website is a treasure trove of hilarious and insightful reviews of all sorts of movies.

It’s because of vern that I was interested in this at all, since I’ve been reading his reviews for years I was happy to get him some royalties even though I really don’t care about the films of Steven Seagal and in fact haven’t seen any, unless you count Machete which is too recent to be in the book at all. Nonetheless, this book is funny as hell even if you’ve never seen any of these movies and don’t plan to. It’s not a collection of random facts (either real or made up) and it’s also not a fawning man-crush paean to Seagal either, since vern freely admits that a lot of the movies, especially the direct to video offerings, are simply not very good. Seagal also started out with his best movies first and has been on something of a downward trajectory since then, so that’s pretty interesting as well.

In addition to the humor value of the reviews, there’s a lot of side information in there about the various folks associated with these movies and the direct to video industry. For instance, a lot of these are shot while the script is either still under development or are multiple-choice in editing. In one of the films they filmed it in such a way that the bad guys could have been either aliens or eurotrash crackheads depending on how they put it together in post production. (They apparently went with the crackhead approach.) Seagology also has a nice section on Lance Henriksen, dubbed by vern a “Paypal Actor” since he must have a site where you can go and send him some money and then he’ll be obliged to come be in your movie, no matter what it is. In the same year he co-starred in Pistol Whipped with Seagal he apparently also appeared in two different sasquatch films. Nonetheless, this section actually inspired someone to go out and write a biography of Henriksen too.

Utilizing the auteur theory, vern puts together a little summary of the common elements in all the movies, such as how much glass gets broken, the awkwardest one-liner, the speech where someone says how badass Seagal is, and so forth. I could say more but I’d run the risk of just copying what vern said funnier than I could. There’s also quite a few typos in the book, so I’m not sure that the editor was really paying attention 100%, but part of vern’s charm is his somewhat idiosyncratic approach to grammar and punctuation. I’m still not sold on seeing any of this stuff but it was an enjoyable read anyway. Okay, maybe I’ll Netflix the one where he has to fight an evil wizard in Thailand. But that’s it.

Friday, July 1, 2011

Paid v. Incurred

This isn’t a post about a book, but rather about a Texas Supreme Court decision, Heygood v. Escabedo, and the reason I mention it is because here, just six months in, is what is likely to be the most significant Texas case that gets decided in 2011.  Most people are never going to hear about it or care very much, but any attorney who deals with civil litigation has been waiting for this to get resolved since at least 2004.

At issue is the question of how much damage you sustain when you’re injured in our bizarre multiple-tiered medical system.  If someone has a $100,000 medical bill, then one would think that the damages are $100,000.  But not so fast – if the person has medical insurance or other types of coverage, the insurance company negotiates a discounted rate for the service.  So maybe the insured person pays a $2,500 co-pay and then the insurer pays $30,000.  In this event there is a bill out there which says $100,000, but only $32,500 gets paid to settle the bill.  Indeed, this is what happened in this case, where Mr. Heygood got billed roughly $110,000 for various treatments, but was covered by Medicare Part B, which meant that Heygood only owed about $28,000 to settle the bill.

In 2004 the Legislature, as part of a major tort reform package, limited recovery for medical bills in civil cases to the amount “actually paid or incurred”.  Although this would obviously prohibit recovery of amounts which were entirely written off as bad debts or as charity, everyone’s been fighting over insurance discounts ever since.

On one side you had the expansive interpretation, which pointed out the disjunctive language in paid or incurred, meaning that the biggest one should be considered.  The “collateral source rule” might also apply, meaning in this context that someone who injures a plaintiff shouldn’t be able to benefit from the plaintiff’s prudent decision to get health insurance (which wouldn’t necessarily apply if the plaintiff was covered under Medicare or Medicaid).

On the other side there is the more limited interpretation, which pointed out that it was intrinsically unfair to award damages to the plaintiff which hadn’t been paid and weren’t owed, and suggested that it was clear the Legislature was attempting to scale back damages in general.

Various appeals courts have come down on both sides, and now the Supreme Court has ruled for the limited interpretation.  Only the amount of bills actually paid or outstanding are admissible for consideration as damages.  This is probably the result the Legislature intended, and I’m happy to finally know what the statute means.  It’s also favorable for my clients.

However, I don’t think there was a way to resolve this issue that doesn’t result in some unfairness to someone.  As a result of this decision, plaintiffs without health insurance are more attractive as personal injury clients than clients with health insurance, especially since the insurer usually has a subrogation interest.  The dissenting opinion pointed out another potential problem as well, which is that mental anguish and pain and suffering awards are based on the amount of actual damages.  When you have two identical plaintiffs with the same injuries but the uninsured one is able to present damages of three or four times the insured plaintiff can present, the uninsured one is either getting too much non-economic damages or the insured one too little.

Of course the alternative arrangement would have the insured plaintiff potentially getting a windfall judgment from a system that’s designed to merely make the plaintiff whole.  This is especially the case if the plaintiff is covered by a state or federal insurance program and was paying no or discounted premiums to begin with.

In short this whole business is an artifact of the messed-up health care system we’ve constructed where no one pays list price (if list price is even listed anywhere) and we have to spend tremendous effort just figuring out who is supposed to pay and how much.  I suppose it’s good we’ve finally got some guidance on this for the legal system, but there’s bound to be some injustice in any system which is so non-transparent.  I’m sure someone’s going to get right on fixing that, just after I get my unicorn.