Civil Litigation Attorneys Who Want the Tough Cases

The civil litigation attorneys here at Cooper & Elliott have a reputation for taking on challenging cases. It’s not the easiest way to practice law, but there are a number of reasons why it’s the path we choose to take.

Reason #1: We love a challenge

One reason we seek the toughest of cases is that, quite simply, we relish a challenge. It is in our nature to turn over every rock, look into every nook and cranny, and find the crack in the door that will eventually reveal an appropriate resolution to the various challenges that a complex case presents.

If one of us runs into a dead end, another of us will step in to continue pursuing a solution. Often, that fresh set of eyes and a slightly different perspective is all it takes break open a seemingly unwinnable case. That kind of teamwork—and relentless pursuit of answers—is what enables us to help our clients find healing and closure.

Reason #2: Righting wrongs

Like most people, we would like to live in a world where no one is ever the victim of injustice. Of course, that’s not the way the world is—so we make our world a better place by helping those who’ve been harmed find the justice they deserve.

Sometimes a person who has been harmed by another’s carelessness or recklessness may have been told that they don’t have a case, or that civil litigation simply can’t achieve the justice they are seeking. But those are exactly the types of cases that appeal to us.

We believe that no matter how difficult the case might be to win, it’s our job—and our passion—to be a champion for someone whose life has been turned upside down by a tragedy. When we see that a wrong has been done, we feel compelled to set things right.

Reason #3: Change the law, change the world

When terrible things happen to people through no fault of their own, they or their loved ones often turn to the civil justice system, trusting that the law will make things right.

Unfortunately, sometimes the law doesn’t keep up with the times. Perhaps the law doesn’t recognize that a remedy should exist for a certain type of wrongful conduct.  Or maybe the law is moving in the right direction, but it just needs a nudge. In those situations, we dive in wholeheartedly because we see it as an opportunity to not only effect a change that will help our client pick up the pieces of a shattered life, but also as a way to use the law to make the world a better place for the rest of us.

Challenging and landmark civil litigation cases can be costly for a firm to take on. Not all civil litigation lawyers want to take those types of cases, and there’s nothing wrong with that. Every firm has a guiding philosophy that it lives by.

But at Cooper & Elliott, we believe that every person deserves a chance to be heard, a chance to heal from a devastating tragedy. When we take the tough cases and are tenacious about finding resolutions, it’s not just our client who benefits—all of us benefit. It’s those challenging and landmark cases that ultimately lead to a better world for everyone.

*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.

When Is It Time for Civil Litigation?

Sometimes the best solution to a difficult situation is no litigation at all. Even in a child-abuse case – one of the worst kinds of personal injury cases – going to court might not be the most effective way to resolve an issue and help the family.

That’s another thing people don’t always understand: When a case finally does go to court, the primary goal is not to punish somebody who’s done wrong. It’s to make sure a family can put its life back together.

Ryan’s story

Three-year-old Ryan* attended a private, church-operated preschool. When he left the school one day, his parents noticed red marks across his backside. It looked like he’d been hit, and Ryan didn’t want to talk about it.

With encouragement from his parents, Ryan finally told them what had happened. A parent volunteer at the preschool had repeatedly hit his bare backside hard with a ruler, leaving the marks.

Ryan’s parents went to the school to ask what happened. They were stonewalled: the school told them nothing had happened. When Ryan’s parents continued asking questions, the school headmaster said they’d be cited for trespassing if they came around again. All Ryan’s parents wanted was to know what had happened to their son.

So Ryan’s parents called Cooper & Elliott. We advised them that it wasn’t time for civil litigation yet, but they should get Child Services involved. The investigator Child Services assigned, however, turned out to be a member of the church that operated the school, which clearly tainted the investigation.

The police got involved, but detectives couldn’t get anyone, including the parent volunteer, to admit to any wrongdoing. The church circled the wagons, made certain its employees told the same story, and got a doctor to say that the marks on Ryan’s body were probably some kind of reaction to a cleaning agent used on toilet seats. With that element of reasonable doubt, the police and the prosecutor weren’t willing to pursue the matter, and the investigation ended.

Throughout all of this, Ryan was having a hard time after the beating he had received. Even though his parents had immediately removed him from the preschool, he was afraid to be left alone, and he’d gone back to wetting the bed. Ryan’s mom, Angela*, also felt horribly guilty. She believed that if she’d been a stay-at-home mom instead of sending Ryan to preschool, none of this would have happened. So she quit her job to be with her kids, even though it put a dent into the family’s income.

The only avenue left now was the civil justice system, where we could obtain school documents, take depositions, and find out for certain what had happened to Ryan.

What civil litigation accomplished for Ryan’s family

Our investigation revealed troubling things. We discovered that the church didn’t have the incident reports and other documents they’re supposed to keep in cases like this. Even more disturbing, we learned that another child got a fractured skull while the classroom was being monitored by the same parent volunteer who allegedly hit Ryan.

So we went to the church with a settlement offer. We asked them to pay for anger management counseling for this parent volunteer; we asked them to institute an ongoing child abuse awareness program for their teachers; and we asked for money to cover counseling for Ryan. The total value of what we wanted was a few thousand dollars, which seemed more than reasonable in view of the harm.

They turned us down flat. After Angela quit her job and more time had elapsed, we added an additional request: we asked them to pay for Angela’s lost income to resolve the situation once and for all. They turned us down again. That left us no choice but to take the church to court.

After hearing what had happened to Ryan and what the church had done afterwards, the jury awarded Ryan and his family compensatory damages, punitive damages, pain and suffering, and lost wages – all told, more than five million dollars. The case allowed Ryan to obtain counseling and for Angela to stay home with her son – and even start a business – without hurting the family’s finances.  The decision also sent a strong message that the community will not tolerate the type of behavior the church exhibited.

This was a family that did everything by the book. They didn’t rush to court. They went to the school first, then to a government agency, then to the police. Frequently, that’s the advice we give, and not just in child-abuse cases. Sometimes the civil justice system shouldn’t, or can’t, be brought into play. But when people pursue appropriate channels and nothing happens, or if the system breaks down along the way, that’s when civil litigation offers the best way to make things right.

*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.

Beyond Civil Litigation: Healing After Justice is Served

The case that follows tragically demonstrates the obstacles clients and their civil litigation lawyers face when trying to reach a positive long-term outcome beyond the courtroom.

A good worker under bad circumstances

Josh* was a meat inspector with the United States Department of Agriculture. He was a great guy: young, idealistic, dedicated. In addition, his strapping 6-foot-4 frame meant he wasn’t easily intimidated – excellent qualities for someone holding the line on USDA policy to ensure that the country’s food supply remained safe.

He was assigned to a hog-slaughtering operation in northern Ohio after complaints had come in that previous inspectors had been taking bribes to look the other way. Immediately he began seeing problems: labor laws seemed to be flouted, and diseased or injured animals were regularly slaughtered, a direct violation of USDA regulations.

Josh, of course, called attention to these things, which slowed down operations and effectively increased costs. Frustrated by Josh’s dedication to his job, the owner of the plant, who authorities in the area suspected was connected to organized crime, began concocting ways to get Josh to quit.

There was a long list of measures the owner took to harass and intimidate Josh. The owner registered complaints about Josh to his congressman and other authorities. He installed surveillance cameras where Josh worked. One day Josh’s car was sprayed with dirt and gravel. Another time, Josh found drugs that had been planted in his car.

Throughout it all, Josh was a rock. Unfazed.

Then things got really nasty. After the plant owner had a henchman swear out a complaint that Josh had solicited him for a sex act, the town’s sheriff – an elected official whose biggest contributor was the meatpacking plant – had him arrested. Josh was left handcuffed to a pole, standing in the middle of the sheriff’s department, for hours. Splashed across the headlines the next day was “Meat Packing Inspector Arrested for Soliciting Sex,” courtesy of the plant owner, who had contacted media outlets.

Providing civil litigation for a defamation victim

Because Josh was a federal employee, the U.S. Attorney’s Office stepped in to defend him, and the charges were quickly dropped – they had all been fabricated. Our firm became involved when Josh decided to file a defamation complaint against the meatpacking plant.

We filed lawsuits and obtained a great deal of background information and discovery, then pursued civil litigation in federal court. We’d been scheduled for trial, when the judge invited the parties to conduct what’s called a summary jury trial.

With a summary jury trial, a jury is summoned and presented evidence in a much abbreviated form and over the course of a few days instead of a week or more, and the jury believes that it’s hearing a real lawsuit. Then it deliberates and issues a nonbinding decision, which gives the parties an idea of how an actual trial might proceed.

The summary jury listened to the evidence we presented and awarded Josh a $1 million verdict for defamation and psychological harm. Not surprisingly, the meatpacking plant owner realized he had no chance of successfully defending himself in civil court, so the case was quickly settled after that.

Tragedy beyond the courtroom

The story should have ended there, but sadly, Josh’s ordeal had only just begun. The stress of the phony solicitation allegations caused Josh – an outdoorsy guy, seemingly invincible – to suffer an incredible psychological break. He was diagnosed with posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD), and the results were devastating.

How does one adequately describe the slow, gradual decay of a human being’s psyche? There was paranoia, divorce, anger issues. Sobbing phone calls from a man unable to reconcile his powerful emotions.

We tried to bring in family members who could provide support, and we encouraged him when he started seeing a psychiatrist. Gradually, though, in spite of our attempts to help him and stay in touch, we lost track of Josh.

About four years after the case ended, we got the worst imaginable news. In Michigan, where he had moved, Josh had apparently barricaded himself and his girlfriend in a house. Police were called and there had been a standoff, and then the unthinkable had happened: Josh killed his girlfriend and himself.

Trying to heal

This is one of those tragedies that will live with us forever. As lawyers, we know we did all we could, working within the civil justice system to get justice for Josh and the best possible settlement. And we know we did the best we could outside of the courtroom, too – guiding him to counseling, providing support, and just being there for him when his anxiety became overwhelming.

Our involvement with him wasn’t at all unusual.  We try to have close associations with our clients that last well beyond their cases, and we try to help them look beyond the litigation.

Frequently, we’ll tell them, “You can’t let the litigation drive your life and you can’t live your life according to the outcome of the case, because who knows the outcome of a lawsuit?” We’re always worried that clients will delay the healing or grieving process, not allowing closure until the lawsuit comes to an end.

If we think it will help, we’ll encourage them to seek family counseling, or marital counseling, or vocational counseling, or vocational training – whatever it takes to find a way to move beyond their misfortune and pain and live the life they intended.

Yet for all that, Josh – a good man, a client, and a friend of ours – is dead. And in spite of all we did, it’s almost impossible to not feel as if we somehow failed him. It’s something we will never get over.

Recovering through relationships

So we work tirelessly.  We do everything in our power to build meaningful relationships with our clients so that we can understand not just their legal needs, but their underlying emotional and psychological needs as well.

When we talk with them, we’re truly listening so that we can recognize those needs and help find the resources they will need to move forward with their lives.  That may be mental health professionals, clergypersons, or even financial counselors. And we’re familiar with the symptoms associated with PTSD, as well as professionals in the area who are trained to treat it.

We’re not doctors or psychiatrists or mental health professionals, but at the same time we recognize, first and foremost, that clients are people, just like us. We recognize that each client is someone who is navigating a devastating chapter in their life, which is why we take our responsibility as attorneys and counselors so seriously.

*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.