The lawyer was questioning his client on the witness stand about her accident.
The lawyer asked, “What do you remember next, madam?”
She replied, “The next thing that I remember, sir, is you helping me out of the car after the accident.”
This is a classic joke that encapsulates the perception that personal injury lawyers “chase ambulances.” And in this joke, the lawyer evidently beat the ambulance to the scene of the crash. Impressive!
To be sure, lawyers make money off the misfortunes of others. A “good case” for a personal injury lawyer is one in which the client was seriously injured, maimed, or even killed by someone else’s careless or reckless behavior. Thus, there is a mix of emotions when a prospective client calls or comes into the office to tell her lawyer her child was hit while crossing the street and is now permanently disabled. The lawyer will feel genuine sorrow for the client and the child, indignation about the driver who was texting while driving, and some level of pride at the prospect of being able to help this client navigate the legal system or negotiate a resolution with an insurance company, and some level of excitement at the prospect of making money on the case -- maybe even a lot of money.
This is the aspect of personal injury work that many members of the public consider dirty or shameful. And many lawyers feel a sense of shame as well, although they try to compensate for it by telling themselves and their clients that “It’s not about the money; it’s about justice. It’s about holding this reckless driver accountable.”
Clients who have been injured go through this mix of emotions as well. They’ve grown up in a culture that is suspicious of plaintiffs and plaintiffs’ lawyers. They shudder at huge verdicts for seemingly minor injuries, like the McDonald’s coffee spill case (which, by the way, was a huge verdict because of McDonald’s repeated dismissals of previous complaints about its coffee being scalding hot, and the woman’s devastating and permanent injuries). People don’t understand what good money will do to help someone’s pain and suffering. “Money won’t make the pain go away,” they say. “It won’t bring your child back to life.” They might reason that “Pain is just a part of life,” and that because no one has paid them for their chronic back pain, no one should pay the plaintiff. “Cowboy up,” they might say in Wyoming. “Tough it out and get on with your life.”
It is the personal injury lawyer’s job to help the jury and the general public understand the human values at play in an injury case, not just the corporate values of the insurance company -- money, money, and more money. No, the values at play in a personal injury case, and those that we hope our fellow citizens' value is:
- Enjoyment in the little things
- Human connections
- Personal progression and improvement
CORPORATE INSURANCE INDUSTRY VALUES
On the other hand, the insurance company, or the defense lawyer who works for the insurance company, does everything it can to diminish the human values or aspects of the case and focus solely on money. “Well,” the insurance defense lawyer says, “Jane can still work to some degree, so we don’t owe her any future lost wages.” Never mind that she now has to work through almost constant burning and pain and take frequent breaks. Or the insurance defense lawyer will point out that “there was only $3,000 in damage to the vehicle, so the crash couldn’t have impacted Jane the way she says it has.” And furthermore, the insurance defense lawyer will argue, “Jane is 55 years old and had some low back pain before the crash,” so her pain and suffering really aren’t worth all that much.
For an insurance company, and unfortunately (because insurance companies have done such a masterful job convincing the public that economic efficiency is more important than justice for a particular individual) for the public at large, it comes down to what is material and measurable by the market. $25,000 in past medical expenses. $3,000 in damage to the vehicle. $2,500 in lost wages. And that’s it. No consideration for Jane’s pain, for the fact that she’s had to give up horseback riding, the stress of her marriage, the inability to get down on the floor to play with her grandchildren, the lack of sleep, the increase in anxiety, the number of pills she now consumes, etc., etc., etc.
It is thus the personal injury lawyer’s job to help the jury and the general public understand that there is nothing shameful in helping someone retain or protect the human values that have been lost or impacted by someone else’s careless or reckless behavior. Why should the texting driver get off the hook? More importantly, why should the insurance company, which has been paid by the texting driver to provide insurance coverage for this very situation, get off the hook? That is what’s truly shameful and unseemly about the personal injury world -- an insurance company that will use every dirty trick in the book to hold onto money that doesn’t belong to it.
Our civil justice system is remarkable in that it is meant to help injured victims with both material losses as well as human losses. Yes, it is meant to reimburse victims for past medical expenses, lost wages, and other easily measurable losses. But money can also help with human losses. Jane can hire someone to care for her horse and train her granddaughter to ride to make up for her inability to care for it and ride herself, and to make up for the inability to hold her granddaughter or get down on the floor to play. Jane can order food in and still have dinner and a movie with her husband and be more comfortable in her recliner than she would be getting in and out of a car.
A personal injury lawyer, a jury, and the general public should feel no shame in helping Jane put her life back together. Yes, the lawyer gets paid because Jane got hurt, but doctors also get paid when people get hurt, as do EMTs and physical therapists and counselors and all kinds of other professionals. Importantly, a lawyer only gets paid if he’s successful for his client. And success comes from understanding the human values at stake.If you’ve been injured through no fault of your own, don’t let the insurance company off the hook or buy into their game of valuing only the material losses. Talk with a personal injury lawyer who understands the true value of your claim and knows how to present it to the jury.