Cooper & Elliott Blog

Uncovering Truth in a Wrongful Death Tragedy

Posted on Fri, Apr 10, 2015 @ 9:51 PM

As wrongful death attorneys, at times we encounter cases that seem mysterious, and it isn’t until all the facts have been gathered that we can make some sense of the whole situation.  This wrongful death case began just like that.

A serious accident

Jessica’s* headaches were incredibly painful, and no one knew why they were getting worse. Many months after a truck rear-ended her car, Jessica was enduring chronic physical pain and severe headaches in addition to the emotional trauma of the crash.

Instead of improving as expected, Jessica’s pain worsened, and after months of increasingly debilitating suffering, Jessica died. Her grieving mother and fiancée were devastated, and they had lots of questions. How could this have happened? Was Jessica’s death related to the accident that took place a year and a half earlier?

Meeting the family

We first met with Jessica’s family shortly after her death. Another firm was handling the accident investigation and litigation, but they were treating the suit as a typical “rear-end collision and compensation” case, the way you might approach an ordinary whiplash or neck sprain.

Months before her death, however, Jessica’s chronic headaches had been diagnosed as a neurological disorder known as a pseudotumor. It’s a condition that mimics a brain tumor, and the effects are as crippling as an actual tumor.

Jessica had spent her final months in agonizing pain, and her mother and fiancée suspected this wasn’t just an ordinary car crash injury. They brought us on board to uncover the truth and seek justice for Jessica.

The investigation

The big question for everyone was this: did the car crash cause Jessica’s death?

Our initial investigation hit a few bumps early, as expected. The medical diagnosis, cause of death, and medical journals all hinted at a connection between Jessica’s death and the car accident, but no solid link could be made to file a wrongful death case.

But on behalf of Jessica and her family, we kept looking. We spent hours combing neurology case studies, articles, and peer-reviewed journals. Because of how rare pseudotumors are, there are only a handful of experts in the world who are versed in this particular disease. We finally tracked one down, and he helped us and Jessica’s family get some answers.  He confirmed that there is in fact a link between trauma—such as trauma caused by a rear-end accident—and pseudotumors.

Justice and closure

It was a tough battle, to be sure. Despite our medical expert’s conclusion, the insurance company’s lawyers didn’t want to believe it.

They claimed there wasn’t enough medical evidence to support the connection, and that there wasn’t enough legal precedent to allow our medical expert’s testimony. They even went so far as to imply that the months and months of care and treatment of Jessica by her family members could have caused her death.

But we had done our homework, and ultimately the insurance company caved, settling for a much higher amount than they had offered when the other firm first filed the case.

Perhaps more important to Jessica’s family than the settlement amount, though, were the answers they received along the way. Jessica’s family now definitively knew that they were not responsible for her death. And by uncovering and telling Jessica’s story, we and her family shed light on a rare but serious neurological disease. Our shared hope is that this case will help pave the way for other families who find themselves in a similar situation.

*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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A Close-Knit Family and Wrongful Death, but a Positive Outcome

Posted on Tue, Mar 10, 2015 @ 9:27 PM

When most people think about the victim in a wrongful death case, they probably envision a person cut down in the prime of life. But people of all ages can be victimized by medical malpractice that prematurely ends their life. This is such a case.

A loving mother and grandmother

Mrs. Etta Cowan* was the family matriarch. She made quilts and afghans for her granddaughters. She loved to bake, and she was famous for a special dessert she would make only once a year. Etta took care of her husband and a grown son who lived at home and required assistance. Despite that, she and her husband were able to travel, and they made trips across the country to visit their other grown children and grandchildren. Etta was an influential force in the lives of her entire family.

One sad day, Etta suffered a serious heart attack. Once under hospital care, though, she started getting better. In fact, her prognosis was good. Then, without warning, this beautiful 70-year old wife, mother, and grandmother died.

The family Etta left behind needed to know why. Was it just something terrible that no one could have prevented, or was it a wrongful death? Was it medical malpractice?

A wrongful death?

In cases like these, the person’s age is certainly a factor. Sometimes, families—and attorneys—believe that an older person’s death is simply a matter of it being “time,” and they won’t look further into the case for that reason. But when our firm began looking into Mrs. Cowan’s case, we discovered that the hospital had made a medication error. As it turned out, medication that might have saved Mrs. Cowan had been withheld from her, resulting in Etta’s untimely death.

After a couple of depositions, the hospital recognized its liability in Mrs. Cowan’s wrongful death, and it agreed to a fair settlement—an amount that was very close to what we would have expected the Cowans to receive had we gone to trial.

A medical malpractice case with a positive outcome

The Cowans are an especially tight-knit family, and their closeness made their case very compelling to us. They lost Mrs. Cowan before they should have, and the loss rippled through the lives of everyone she touched.

The financial settlement for Mrs. Cowan’s wrongful death helped continue care for the Cowans’ son who couldn’t care for himself, and it helped make life for Mr. Cowan and the rest of the family as close as possible to normal.  Even more importantly, in the settlement the hospital acknowledged its responsibility for Etta’s untimely death.  Such an acknowledgment allowed Etta’s loved ones to move on with their lives, together as a family, even without their beloved matriarch.

*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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The Multiple Faces of Justice in a Wrongful Death Case

Posted on Tue, Mar 3, 2015 @ 9:25 PM

The goals of people seeking the help of a wrongful death attorney can be as varied as the emotions they’re experiencing. It’s possible to actually win a verdict for a client yet still not attain the level of justice they had hoped for. The case that follows illustrates the many types of justice a client can seek, and some of the impediments those remedies may face — sometimes due to the legal system itself.

A drive ends in tragedy

Jake*, 38, was an avid motorcyclist. Ever since he was old enough to have a license, he’d ridden motorcycles. And contrary to the image that some have of motorcycle enthusiasts, Jake was a very careful, very safe, very deliberate rider. A family man, happily married with two children, Jake had never even received a traffic citation for motorcycle riding.

One sunny weekend afternoon, he and his wife, Mary*, were riding their motorcycles together, out on the highway. Unbeknownst to them, a semi-truck had punctured its fuel tank and was leaking diesel fuel onto the road. The truck eventually got off the road, splashing fuel all along the exit ramp.

Diesel fuel may look just like water, but when it’s spilled on concrete, the surface becomes as slippery as a sheet of ice. As Jake pulled onto the same exit ramp, he crossed over the spilled diesel fuel, his motorcycle slipped, and he was shot from the bike like a bullet from a gun. Jake hit a guard rail head first and instantly was killed.

A wrongful death case unearths the truth

At first this tragedy looked like a simple accident—somebody driving across a liquid substance and losing control of their vehicle—but our investigation revealed much more. After Mary came to us for help, we dug deep into the case and discovered a number of poor decisions that together had led to this terrible and wrongful death.

For example, the damage to the truck driver’s fuel tank had occurred when the driver ran over a metal object on the highway. Rather than pulling over and investigating the damage (the driver reported the initial impact sounding like a gunshot), she proceeded to drive for over a mile, leaking diesel fuel down that entire portion of the highway. Instead of calling the highway patrol, setting up flares or warning triangles, and generally trying to alert motorists to the danger, the driver tried to plug the leak with a rag and merely called dispatch for help.

Yet in spite of the driver’s obvious culpability, the trucking agency that employed her denied any responsibility, instead offering $25,000 to settle out of court. Considering the gravity of the situation—that Mary, her children, and Jake’s parents were attempting to face a life without Jake, who was also the breadwinner of the family—the trucking company’s offer simply wasn’t realistic.

So we went to trial. There we were able to present a powerful, convincing wrongful death claim to the jury. Some key moments of the trial:

  • We revealed that the truck driver already had a poor safety record with her employer.
  • We effectively cross-examined the trucking company’s safety director and listed all of the things the driver failed to do under the employer’s own policy. That, in conjunction with the testimony of the safety expert we brought in, clearly illustrated to the jury why we were seeking justice in this case.
  • We rented a helicopter and used it to videotape the entire one-plus mile of highway where the truck driver had recklessly spilled diesel fuel. As we played the video for the jury during closing arguments, there was absolute silence as they realized how long the fuel had been allowed to spill before the truck finally came to a stop (and then, only because the truck had suffered a flat tire).

Justice gained and lost

The good news is, we helped bring our client justice: The trial ended with a large jury verdict for compensatory and punitive damages. But here’s where things got a little tricky.

The verdict was appealed, and the punitive damages portion was tossed out based on an argument that the driver’s carelessness did not rise to a level warranting punitive damages.

Needless to say, this was disappointing—not only for us and the jurors, but especially for our client. One of the things the family had hoped would come out of this trial would be a message to the trucking company that said, “You’ve got to do something different here. You’ve got to understand what your driver did, and you need to elevate your safety standards so a 38-year-old man with a family doesn’t lose his life.”

That’s what punitive damages are all about. They send a message on behalf of the community to promote safety and better behavior. Driving a semi-truck is an extraordinarily dangerous activity, and we hoped that the punitive damages verdict would ensure that truck drivers understood they needed to be more vigilant about safety on the roadway.

Unfortunately, that message from the jury was erased by the court of appeals.

Still, justice was served in other ways. The compensatory damages the client received were desperately needed by Jake’s family. Moreover, those damages would help Mary follow through with a dream she and Jake had: sending their kids to college.

And there was something even more significant. While financial compensation was important to Mary and her kids, the family’s main priority was to establish that Jake had not caused his own death. From day one, the trucking company had denied responsibility for his accident, later adding insult by blaming Jake and claiming he was responsible for his own death since he had driven over a wet substance on the road.

The jury’s decision established in no uncertain terms that the truck driver and the trucking company were the real parties responsible for Jake’s tragic death. This was a tremendous relief for our client, and hopefully provided a building block in the long process of healing that lay ahead.

An attorney’s point of view

From our own perspective, this case represented a range of different feelings. We were gratified to see our client receive some measure of justice. Nothing we might have done could possibly eliminate the grief that Mary and her family were feeling, but we would like to believe we helped them in some small way to move forward.

But we also felt frustration and bewilderment with the appellate court’s decision. By overturning the jury’s decision to award punitive damages, the court not only negated justice for our client, who hoped measures would be taken so this type of accident could never be repeated in the future, but also negated a message that could have helped make the community’s highways safer.

Caring about caring

We were deeply touched by Jake’s story.  During the trial, while we maintained our professionalism in the courtroom, there were times—when Jake’s family talked about what a phenomenal human being he was, and how important he’d been to them; when the jury came back with its verdict, making it crystal clear that Jake hadn’t been responsible for his accident—when we became emotional.

We believe that’s a good thing. Getting emotional reminds us we’re doing our jobs as wrongful death attorneys. It means we haven’t become numb to the system or to the horrible circumstances that our clients find themselves in. It means we can empathize and to some degree personally experience what our clients are going through.

*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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What Motivates a Cooper & Elliott Lawyer?

Posted on Tue, Feb 24, 2015 @ 1:46 PM

The attorneys of Cooper & Elliott are a unique breed of civil litigation lawyers—and we’re kind of proud of it. The attorneys on our team have a distinct set of qualities and skills that we think give us an advantage when it comes to handling cases.

Thinking quickly and compassionately

To join our team, a candidate must have the things you’d typically expect: they need to be an exemplary researcher and writer and have excelled in law school. But our lawyers also must think fast on their feet. There’s no time to press “pause” when a curveball is thrown at you during trial. A great attorney has to be able to react quickly and seamlessly to make the necessary change. This is a quality all Cooper & Elliott attorneys possess.

We also require compassionate thinking. We hire lawyers with exceptional people skills, folks who are intuitive and sensitive to other people’s suffering. They must be able to communicate precisely and clearly, and they have to be able to connect with both clients and jurors by understanding and presenting difficult issues in high-stakes cases.

Our team members must also be courageous and have an inherent competitive streak. That’s something that can’t be taught; either you have it or you don’t, and to be on the Cooper & Elliott team it must be part of your DNA.

Righting wrongs

We get extreme satisfaction from righting wrongs, finding justice, and helping prevent others from enduring the same tragedies our clients had to live through. When we see that an injustice has been done, we are compelled to make things right—even if it means taking on challenging or unpopular cases.  We have filed lawsuits against churches, non-profits, and popular political leaders, not because we were eager to sue but because in each instance they had violated the law but refused to accept responsibility. Sometimes the pursuit of justice requires us to take action against a popular or powerful defendant, and when it does we don’t shy away.

Making a difference

The most satisfying cases for us are those where we had a significant, positive impact on our clients’ lives. Like the case where a garbage truck drove through the side of a client’s house. In the blink of an eye, our client was effectively made homeless, but because the insurance company felt the house wasn’t worth much due to a sewer problem, the amount they were willing to pay out wasn’t going to be enough to make our client whole again.

We knew the case wasn’t simply about obtaining money for repairs—it was about getting our client back into a livable home and getting his life back to where it had been before the accident. By understanding what our client really needed, and with some tenacity and creativity, our client ultimately received a sum that allowed him to move to a new home and put his life back together.

Getting personal

Getting to know our clients personally not only helps us understand how they’ve been hurt and what they need in order to heal, it helps us argue the case most effectively. Recently, we handled a case where a woman died as a result of negligence by the hospital that was treating her.

To prepare the case, we sat down with every member of this woman’s family to learn about who their mother had been—how kind she had been, how passionate she had been about her community, and how her senseless passing had devastated her entire family. We travelled to each family member’s home—from Florida to California—to look at photos of their deceased mother, hear stories of how integral she was in their lives, and to internalize how her wrongful death had impacted the entire family.

Only by getting to know these family members could we get to know their lost loved one. And only by getting to know this special woman through them could we effectively argue their civil litigation case in court.

Going above and beyond

Ultimately, it’s our goal to help our client meet whatever need has not been met by other means. For us, a successful case is not just about obtaining a large verdict or settlement, although we do work hard to do the best we can in every way for our clients. What really motivates us is a genuine desire to right wrongs, and to help each of our clients move past their loss so they can get on with their lives.

We come to care deeply about each client, and we care an awful lot about making sure wrongs are made right—not only for our particular clients, but for every one of us who might face the same situation in the future.

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

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Civil Litigation and Justice: It’s Not All About Money

Posted on Tue, Feb 17, 2015 @ 7:55 AM

Law is complex — most people know that. And so are the reasons someone may seek the help of an attorney.

Contrary to what many TV shows and news reports suggest, civil litigation doesn’t simply boil down to people seeking money. Actually, money is almost never at the heart of why people come to us for help. The real reasons are usually much more personal, much more human.

Many faces of justice

On a basic level, when a person or their loved one has been harmed and they seek help through civil litigation, what they’re typically after is some type of justice or closure. But the form that comes in can be as varied as the clients we serve.

Broadly speaking, their requests will often fall into one of three areas:

  • I want answers: How did this terrible thing happen? And why?
  • I want an opportunity to face the person or company who caused the harm.
  • I want an opportunity to tell my story (or that of my injured or deceased loved one).

And while it’s true that money is usually not top of mind when clients seek help from us, the structure of the civil justice system is such that money awards or settlements may nevertheless be a component of the justice they receive.

We’ll discuss that in more detail later on, but first let’s explore some of the non-monetary forms of justice we help provide people.

In search of answers

If a loved one is suddenly, senselessly taken from you due to the actions of another, part of the healing process often involves just trying to understand how and why they died. Just knowing the details can provide a chance for closure.

After a client’s sister died because she’d been discharged from a hospital without being treated for an easily identified health problem, that client came to us not in search of money, but with a very reasonable question: How did this happen?

We promised we would find out for her, then did exactly that. We examined the hospital’s medical records, retained experts, filed suit, questioned the people who had treated her sister, and ultimately identified the breakdown in communication that led to her sister’s death. Getting those types of answers can be a powerful first step in finding a way to heal from a devastating loss.

Understandably, after receiving this information the client wanted to know what the hospital was doing to prevent a similar occurrence from ever happening again. Her persistent questions ultimately led to the hospital changing its practices and policies.

Positive changes like that can be very helpful to a family trying to come to grips with a terrible, senseless — and in this case, avoidable — tragedy.

Confronting a wrongdoer

When somebody has been hurt, another natural reaction is to want to face the person responsible, whether it’s to find answers, or to seek contrition, or to fulfill some other personal need.

After a newly married couple’s young child died at a daycare center, it was very important to them to face the worker who had been with the child. They suspected the worker had been responsible for the death, and wanted to look the person in the eye and hear exactly what had happened. We arranged a deposition that accomplished that.

In a criminal trial, that likely wouldn’t have been possible. Criminal trials are commonly thought of as the be-all and end-all, but they can be more frustrating for families than helpful, since people have very little control over the questions being asked. What’s more, if clients are potential witnesses, they may be kept outside the courtroom while the wrongdoer is questioned.

With a deposition, however, we could ask the questions that were important to our clients and they could hear the answers. What’s more, we were able to forcefully follow up those questions in ways that the clients, in their grief, might not be prepared to do. That was powerful for them, and hopefully helped begin the process of somehow finding closure.

Telling their story

For others, especially people who have experienced the sudden loss of a loved one, the opportunity to tell their story or the deceased’s story can be a significant form of justice. The client not only wants their loved one to be remembered, but also wants the chance to speak for someone whose voice has been silenced — to tell the defendant and court and jury who this person was and what profound loss his or her death represents.

Over the years, our clients have shared moving stories about the family members they’ve lost. The stories can be heartbreaking at times, but they always illustrate the preciousness of human connections, and the devastation one experiences when those connections are severed.

Again, civil litigation cases are much more helpful for this type of justice, as they allow clients to tell their stories directly to the people who harmed them. It’s perhaps the most significant service we can provide for our clients, aside from the general support and advice we offer as they try to get through what will probably be one of the most difficult times in their lives.

The role of money in civil litigation

Of course, the end result of many civil litigation cases is often monetary. That’s simply how the civil justice system is designed to work. Unlike, say, civil rights cases, where you might see a court require some sort of change in policy or practice, the civil justice system is simply designed to provide money to victims.

We tell juries all the time that while it’s often a very coarse way of administering justice, it’s the only instrument they have at their disposal. The good news is that they do at least have some discretion in how these damages are designated. Compensatory damages, of course, attempt to compensate people for their losses; punitive damages, meanwhile, are designed to punish wrongdoing or bad conduct.

Both send a signal of how the community feels about a particular offense, which ideally can help influence better behavior going forward. This is especially true with businesses, which might take note if they’re susceptible to a punitive damages award and consequently decide it could be less expensive to change their conduct than to risk a lawsuit.

Settlements are often a better means of dispensing justice, because they allow you to do things that a jury can’t. A defendant can agree to take certain steps, and you can stipulate there must be some form of follow-up to ensure compliance.  For instance, a company whose employees have been negligent could agree that it will educate its staff or change its practices in certain ways, and this would be verified later. As a result, settlements can be a very powerful agent of change.

Finally, it should also be remembered that money — whether awarded by a jury or provided by a settlement — is sometimes sorely needed by our clients. Victims and their families frequently need money in the wake of their tragedies, whether it’s for physical or psychological rehabilitation, or to pay the rent after the death of a breadwinning spouse, or to renew their education after a severe injury.  Having said that, we can confidently say that every client we’ve represented would happily forgo the money a jury provides if they had the ability to turn back the clock to the point just before their loss or injury.

Trust and justice

With few exceptions, our clients want more than money when they come to us. Given the trying circumstances many of them are facing, however, it’s understandable if they themselves sometimes don’t immediately know what they want or need.

That’s OK — it’s a process. Very often the first thing they need is simply somebody to hear what they’re going through. A sounding board. A confidant. Someone they can trust who’s looking out for them and can offer advice in their interest.

We’ll spend many hours talking with clients so we can build that trust, because we want them to feel that they can tell us anything. Not only can that be beneficial for them during these fragile times, but it also allows us to explore their needs so that we can properly represent them.

Only by getting to know them and truly understanding their needs — whether those needs involve seeking answers, or facing the person who hurt them, or telling their story — can we work to effectively provide the justice that will hopefully help them move beyond this very painful time in their lives.

*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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Civil Litigation Attorneys Who Want the Tough Cases

Posted on Tue, Feb 10, 2015 @ 8:30 AM

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.

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Thinking Out of the Box: How Complex Civil Litigation Helped a Diamond Merchant

Posted on Tue, Jan 27, 2015 @ 1:12 PM

Clients come to Cooper & Elliott because complex civil litigation is one of the areas where we excel. And because we want to help, there is nothing we dislike more than delivering bad news. And the initial news we had to give Henry Jackson* was devastating. 

Henry was a diamond merchant from New York who had come to Columbus for a jewelry show carrying a briefcase containing $1,000,000 in stones. He checked into a hotel and stored his precious inventory in the hotel’s safe-deposit boxes. It was standard operating procedure in his business, and he’d done it dozens of times over the years. He took the keys to the needed three safe deposit boxes, put them in his pocket, and then went up to bed.

Henry didn’t know it, but he—and everyone else in the hotel—was about to sleep through the kind of thing that’s supposed to happen only in the movies. A group of jewel thieves was about to pull off a heist months in the making.

The Hotel’s Insurance Liability

During the chaos of a hotel remodeling project, the thieves managed to obtain the hotel’s master key to the safe-deposit boxes and then alter the locks on the boxes so that the second key—like the ones that Henry kept with him in his room—weren’t needed to open them. And on the very night Henry checked in, the thieves made their play and walked away with millions in precious stones, which included Henry’s entire inventory and the inventory of several other diamond merchants.

The FBI eventually caught the thieves but didn’t recover the loot. Henry felt the hotel was at fault for the whole thing, so he wanted to sue.

After our first look at the case, we had to give him the bad news. The hotel’s liability for the theft was covered under Ohio’s innkeeper’s statute, which was unchanged from the 1800s. As long as a hotel had locks on the windows and a “metal safe or vault in good order,” by law the hotel’s liability for theft was limited to $500, no matter how big the loss or how careless the hotel was.

Henry was devastated. He had lost $1,000,000 in diamonds, but because of the way the law was written, $500 was the extent of the hotel’s liability.

Henry’s company wasn’t a big one, and the jewels that had been stolen made up much of his inventory.  A $500 settlement or verdict wasn’t just unfair, it was financially crippling. So we went to work trying to find a way to correct this injustice.

Why Civil Litigation Can Be Complex

Complex civil litigation is called “complex” for very good reasons. It takes a lot of work to get a good result, especially when the odds seem stacked against you. We researched the law. We read every case that had ever applied Ohio’s innkeeper statute and dug through old cases in other states to see how courts had analyzed similar laws. We made sure we uncovered every possible angle that might make a difference in the case.

Finally, we hit upon an approach that seemed promising. It revolved around the simple phrase “in good order.”

On the day we took depositions from the hotel employees, we asked a few preliminary questions before we got down to what we really wanted to know. We got them to agree that safe-deposit boxes are the modern-day equivalent of the “metal safes and vaults” hotels provided a century ago (when Ohio’s innkeeper statute was enacted). Then we asked the manager to tell us precisely how a safe-deposit box is supposed to work.

The manager explained that it took two keys to open the box. One was the master key, and the other was the key given to the owner of whatever was going in the box. When it came time to open the box, both keys were required. We asked if the box could ever be opened with one key—either with the master alone or the guest’s key alone. The manager told us it always took two.

If you could open the safe-deposit box with only the master key—which is what the jewel thieves had done—the box would not be “in good order.” And that meant the hotel wouldn’t be protected by the innkeeper’s statute and its $500 liability limit.

Henry was going to win his case.

The Insurance Company Settles the Case

In court, we argued that the hotel had not provided a vault or safe in good order because it could be opened with one key. As you might expect, the hotel and its insurance company objected strongly to our argument.  They pointed out that other diamond brokers who had jewels stolen in the same heist had filed lawsuits, and the courts in those cases had limited the damages to $500.    

But those other victims hadn’t come up with the argument we made. In the end, the judge in Henry’s case was persuaded. He issued a ruling in Henry’s favor and scheduled the case for trial where the only issue would be the amount of damages.  It was only then that the hotel’s insurance company decided to make a settlement offer to Henry. Henry ended up with an offer that covered his lost diamonds.  

In the course of our research on the Jackson case, we found that the antiquated innkeeper’s statute had been upheld time and again over the years. Surely some of those plaintiffs might have been entitled to more than $500, but for whatever reason, they didn’t get it. We’re just glad we were able to come through for Henry, and for anybody who might be in the same boat in the future and might be able to take advantage of the approach we developed to get around an unfair law.

With complex civil litigation, the winning solution isn’t always obvious. It takes research and consultation, along with creative thinking and tenacity. But it’s like any other line of work in that if you really want to help people, you’ve got to make the commitment and put in the time it takes to get the best possible result.

*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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For Justice in a Personal Injury Case, There’s No One-Size-Fits-All Strategy

Posted on Tue, Jan 20, 2015 @ 2:44 PM

One thing is consistent about our cases: no two are alike. That means we have to closely look at each personal injury case based on its own unique circumstances in order to best serve our clients. The case that follows is a perfect example. By looking beyond the conventional wisdom for such incidents and crafting a strategy based on the specific details of the case, we were able to help a young man find justice — and an opportunity to rebuild his life.

Steve’s life was changed forever

Steve Olson*, 21, was a student at Ohio State University. One night, as he was leaving a local bar on campus, another patron began yelling at him. Apparently the angry patron had mistaken Steve for somebody who had caused an argument in the bar.

The angry man rushed out of the bar’s back-patio emergency exit and shouted at Steve, and as Steve turned around the man sucker-punched him in the face. Steve fell and smashed his head on the ground, sustaining such severe trauma that doctors initially told his father he would likely die.

The good news was that Steve lived. However, he had lost all hearing in his right ear and much in his left, and he spent the next few years recovering from complications caused by the attack.

Identifying the negligence

Working as Steve’s personal injury attorneys, at first glance our next step would seem clear: pursue action against Steve’s attacker. But in the course of the events above, there was a crucial piece of information that changed our strategy. The angry bar patron didn’t just leave the bar on his own. The bar’s security personnel willingly allowed the enraged attacker to leave the bar through an emergency exit so he could chase Steve down.

Think about it: Why does a bar have security? To control crowds, make sure fights don’t break out, and ensure people don’t get hurt. But what happened on the night of Steve’s attack? A man was screaming over the fence trying to get at Steve, and rather than trying to calm the situation down, a security person opened an emergency exit and let the angry man run out.

We argued that the security person’s negligence was tantamount to putting a bullet in a gun, because his actions led directly to Steve being harmed.

Competing arguments: Where was the negligence?

When we sued, the bar and its liability insurance company refused to take responsibility for what had happened.  The insurance company argued that since Steve’s injury clearly hadn’t taken place on the bar’s property (it had been outside, near a public street), any negligence by the bar also hadn’t occurred on the bar’s property. By this logic, the bar — and the insurance company — would be off the hook for damages.

And truthfully, other personal injury lawyers might likely have looked at this case and agreed with the insurance company.

That didn’t seem right, so we made a creative argument. While the injury might have occurred off the property, the negligence occurred on the property when that bar’s security personnel allowed a large, drunken, hostile patron out through its emergency exit. Once the insurance company’s lawyers realized there was a good chance our argument would win, the insurance company settled the case.

The result? Steve received a substantial settlement without having to fight in court, which could have taken years to finalize. Steve’s attacker also spent some time in jail for the assault.

A personal injury case’s best outcome

While a substantial settlement sounds good, that money actually supports the real victory. A permanently impaired young man — someone who couldn’t get back to college, who almost died, and who had lost two years of his life — now had the means to get back on his feet again.

And justice wasn’t important only to Steve. Throughout the whole ordeal, his parents and siblings had been through an emotional wringer. With the settlement and end of the case, they too could breathe a little easier about Steve’s future.

Getting involved

This personal injury case was significant to us for a couple of reasons. First, it reaffirmed how justice can be served by creative thinking, a close look at the details, hard work, and going the extra mile.

Why did we go that extra mile to find justice for Steve?

The answer: personal involvement. When we took on Steve’s case, we also took on Steve and his family. We watched their struggles, tried to understand their pain, and provided moral support and advice wherever we could. We did our best to see the situation through their eyes.

When you make the effort to stand in somebody else’s shoes after such a tragedy and fully understand what they’re going through, you become invested. That is why we take on personal injury cases like Steve’s, and that is why we exhaustively look for any possible way to ensure our clients receive the justice they deserve.

It’s what any of us would do for the people we care about.

*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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When Is It Time for Civil Litigation?

Posted on Tue, Jan 13, 2015 @ 1:33 PM

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.

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Ginny Lefever Appointed to Board of Life After Justice

Posted on Fri, Jan 9, 2015 @ 8:20 AM

As a long-time supporter and fan of Ginny Lefever, we want to take this opportunity to congratulate her on her appointment to the board of Life After Justice

Founded by exonerees Jarrett Adams and Antoine Day, Life After Justice is a nonprofit organization dedicated to assisting wrongfully convicted men and women rebuild their lives after being released from prison. The organization provides a comprehensive suite of services for the wrongfully convicted. They assist exonerees in areas of housing, legal, vocational training and rehab, with a holistic approach to medical, dental and mental health services including post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and substance abuse issues.

Ginny has taken a role on the board of this organization to provide a woman’s perspective, and to ensure the organization addresses the unique re-entry challenges faced by female exonerees. Like with everything Ginny does, we know that her contributions to Life After Justice will help countless people heal.

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