Cooper & Elliott Blog

How Justice, Compensation, and Listening Helped a Family Heal After a Wrongful Death

Posted on Thu, Dec 11, 2014 @ 4:41 PM

It was a family’s worst nightmare.

Around 5:00 one morning, Genie Henderson*, a 21-year-old with a job at a senior living facility, was on her way to work driving northbound on the local highway. She had no way of knowing that a drunk driver, having mistaken an exit ramp for an on-ramp, was driving southbound on that very same road at 60 mph. He came up over a hill and hit her head on.

She died immediately.

She left behind Joe, her fiancé, and their 1-year-old son, Sam, but also some profound questions: How could this have happened? Was it preventable? And how would Genie’s life have unfolded if this tragedy had never taken place?

Some people hearing about an accident like this might say, “Ah, a drunk driver. Probably didn’t have insurance. Case over.” But we felt we could help Joe and Sam heal from the loss of Genie, especially if we could answer some of those questions raised by her wrongful death.

Analyzing a wrongful death

What we learned was startling.

We discovered that the man responsible for Genie’s death had been arrested for drunken driving 10 times, including once just before this accident. How was that even possible? After all, standard procedure is for the police department to take away a person’s driver’s license, physically remove the license plate from his car, and impound the vehicle until a court order says it can be safely released.

Here, however, although the drunk driver had initially been put in jail, he’d been released less than 48 hours later and given his car back. He promptly went out, got drunk again, and forever changed the future of this innocent young family.

Our investigation found that the police department had released the man essentially for no good reason other than expediency. He had been a constant nuisance while in jail, so they let him out and gave him his car simply to make their own lives easier.

Understanding our clients’ needs

Needless to say, Genie’s family wanted justice. It was very important to them that a message was sent to the community so that this kind of tragedy would never be repeated.

The outcome of the case sent a very clear signal that drunken driving is a real crime with horribly real consequences, and that there should be zero tolerance of this behavior. The message extended to law enforcement too: drunk drivers are dangerous criminals and should be treated as such, not released on a whim or for convenience.

Genie’s family also needed compensation for their suffering and loss. But what some people don’t understand is that getting the largest award possible is never our clients’ primary objective. It’s always about something more fundamental: making sure those responsible are held accountable; making sure the victim’s death wasn’t in vain; speaking on behalf of the victim to give him or her a voice.

We talked with Genie’s family and friends to learn more about her and what her wishes might have been for her family. And we talked with them just to get to know them better and help them through a very painful time. Through our discussions, it became clear that a major priority was to ensure Genie’s son was provided for, so we sought an award that would take care of him into the future, including funds to pay for a college education.

Rewarding work

Every so often, we’ll check to see how Genie’s family is doing. Sam, that little 1-year-old, is now in high school and a soccer star. He plays goalie. Soon he’ll get the college education his mom always wanted for him.

It’s gratifying to know how our work helped honor the wishes of Genie’s family and get them back on their feet. And it’s even more gratifying because we’re invested in them not just as clients, but as people people with feelings who needed our help and compassion, and whom we wanted to see heal and ultimately thrive.

*Names in this article have been changed to protect our client’s privacy. 

The outcome of any client’s case will depend on the particular legal and factual circumstances of the case.

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