For liberty and justice for all

You’ve said those words thousands of times if you attended primary or elementary school in the United States. You said them to conclude the Pledge of Allegiance wherein we state we are one Nation, under God, with liberty and justice or all. 

But what does that mean?

Likely it means something different to everyone who utters the words. 

To the author, liberty may have meant freedom from state sponsored religion. It may have meant freedom to chose not to salute the flag. The words themselves have changed overtime, and so has the inspired meaning of the text. 

When I see the word liberty, I think of basic human liberties – the right to work, love, worship as one sees appropriate for their lives. But the word justice has much more complicated meaning for me. 

  • Is it justice for a young mother to suffer a preventable death, and her children be forced to grow up in a world without her? Is it justice when her Estate sues the doctor who failed to tell the young mother she had cervical cancer (yes, that’s right – FAILED TO TELL HER SHE HAD CANCER FOR ALMOST TWO YEARS UNTIL IT SPREAD) and the Estate is only allowed to recover $2,000,000 under Virginia law, though her lost wages alone would exceed that? Is it justice when the attorneys get 40% of that money because it took two years to get the doctor’s insurance company to make a reasonable settlement offer on the claim? 
  • Is it justice when a poor woman on Medicaid is given a  lower level of care in a nursing home than the private pay resident in the room next door?
  • Is it justice when families are forced to declare bankruptcy because they cannot pay for the emergency medical bills that exceeded their insurance coverage for a tragic illness?
  • Is it justice when a doctor harms a child but her parents are in the United States without documentation, and they feel they cannot file suit to pay for their daughter’s un-ending medical bills because the family may be exposed to local ICE agents?

Yes, when I think of justice I think of the families currently detained at Dulles airport, and the lives of the young men killed by law enforcement officers across our United States over the last few years. I think of the Freedom Riders, Selma, Martin Luther King’s letter from a Birmingham Jail, I think of the women who fought so hard for the right to vote. But while my mind and heart expand to the ever changing and ever inclusive definition of ‘liberty and justice for all,’ when it comes to my work, I think of the access to health care as an issue of justice. Not just the ability to pay for healthcare, but the provision of appropriate and good healthcare. 

I told a stranger at the DMV last week that I was a medical malpractice lawyer. He flinched. His wife is a doctor, but as the conversation continued I hope he felt less threatened by my job title. I don’t want to ruin the reputation of any doctor. I don’t want to take money from their children. I just want accountability when individuals and or the system fails and people are permanently hurt. 

And I don’t just mean white people, or American people. I mean all people. 

The laws of Virginia allow anyone who received negligent care to hire an attorney and file a lawsuit with merit. That means folks visiting on a Green Card, VISA, and undocumented workers and immigrants. Everyone has access to our civil justice system. I am grateful for this. This to me sounds like liberty and justice for all. 

So when I say the pledge at the next Roanoke Bar Meeting, that is the flag I will be saluting. 

Lauren Ellerman

Lauren Ellerman

In 2011, Lauren Ellerman was named "Young Lawyer of the Year" by the Roanoke Bar Association for her work in the community. To speak with Lauren about your personal injury case, contact her at lellerman@frithlawfirm.com.