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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Touching Lives: The Human Inspiration for Us as Personal Injury Attorneys

Posted on Thu, Dec 11, 2014 @ 4:13 PM

If you ask personal injury attorneys what motivates them in their profession, chances are you’ll hear a range of responses, from the pursuit of justice to winning big settlements. But one of our most compelling reasons for doing this kind of work is the genuine desire to help people in need—to help a person put his or her life back on track after a devastating event. Here’s one of those stories.

David: In Need of a Personal Injury Attorney

A few years ago, David* had a lawsuit pending in Federal Court, and he urgently needed a new attorney.

His case, involving police misconduct, was shocking. He had suffered a spinal injury from officers who mistreated him while he was in handcuffs. Temporarily unable to use his arms or legs, he had literally been dragged into a jail cell by the police as he yelled for help, telling them that his neck was broken. Eventually a civilian employee at the jail, breaking down in tears, convinced a supervisor to bring in medical help. David was transported to a hospital, where a neurosurgeon was able to preserve his ability to use his legs and arms—but only partially. Because of this incident, David suffered permanent nerve damage that would limit full use of his limbs for the rest of his life.

As troubling as this story was, we wanted to take David’s case only if we could make a difference. Deadlines were approaching very quickly, and court orders said that his case would soon be dismissed. But we also realized that, through no fault of his own, David wasn’t getting adequate representation. His personal injury attorney at the time, while very knowledgeable in general, simply didn’t have experience in this area of law. We did, so we jumped in with both feet.

Experience Makes the Difference

Once we got involved, we quickly went to work on a number of fronts:

  • We obtained more time. We approached the court to arrange for more time so we could identify experts and comply with the court’s order. Extra time would be crucial for us to address and present the merits of David’s case properly. Fortunately, the court agreed.
  • We located experts. Because of our experience in this area, we knew of well-respected national experts who could assist us in what looked to be a technically-challenging case. We needed medical experts. We needed people with expertise in determining how much force is considered excessive for the purposes of law enforcement. So we lined up specialists capable of providing valuable, authoritative testimony.
  • We took police testimony. When we took the case, no testimony had been taken from any police officers. Based on our experience, we knew what questions had to be asked and what answers had to be obtained in order to hold the right people responsible for David’ injuries. Having control over that gave us a considerable advantage when preparing for trial.
  • We researched the case thoroughly. Even in areas of case law in which we have vast experience, we prefer to go back to the books, research the cases, and ensure that we’re fully up to date so that when we do take testimony from witnesses, we’re asking the questions we know the court or jury would ask.    
  • We understood the full extent of damages. We prepared to address some very sophisticated legal arguments: How is excessive force defined? Was excessive force used in David’s case? If so, what are the right damages? A personal injury attorney has only one opportunity to get this right. It’s critical to know the full extent of a client’s harm and, most importantly, how much it’s going to cost to care for our client for the rest of his or her life.

David: Not Just a Case

We also helped David in a less tangible, but perhaps even more meaningful, way: we treated him like a human being and not just a ‘case’.

David was a fairly young man with few family members to support him, disabled by the police, and worried about how he would care for his children. His life had taken a dramatic negative turn. That’s a scary place to be, and something no person should have to manage alone.

Throughout his case, and even afterward, we became David’s closest confidantes —friends, sounding boards, people he could trust. That extended to our entire firm as well, with David becoming a part of our family throughout the course of the lawsuit.

Sure, talking to experts and writing briefs is important, but often our job is also about spending hours counseling our clients, offering compassion, and just helping them navigate a terrible chapter in their lives.

Fortunately, our involvement brought a happy outcome. We successfully reshaped David’s case and got it ready for trial. Literally days before the trial was scheduled to start, the police department asked to settle the case for an amount that ensured David could care for himself and his children for the rest of his life. 

Bending the Arc of Justice

It was gratifying to know we had helped bring some form of justice — or at least accountability — in the wake of David’s mistreatment. But consider where he would be now without having had experienced representation. What would his life be like? What would life be like for his children?

We took a case that had literally been on the brink of failure and turned it into a multimillion-dollar recovery that’s being used to care for a person who was severely and permanently injured. That’s what motivates us most as personal injury attorneys. For all the legal victories, it’s the important human stories behind them that inspire us most.

Martin Luther King Jr. once said, “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice.” Sometimes we have to pound like heck on that arc just to get it to bend even a little. But it’s awfully gratifying when you know you’ve played a role in pointing it in the right direction.

*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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Justice for a Wrongful Death Sabotaged By Irresponsibility

Posted on Tue, Dec 9, 2014 @ 11:14 AM

One summer day, Jim Harrison*, 45, a married father of two young girls, noticed water dripping from the ceiling, so he went up to the attic to take a look. The source of the water, it turned out, was a leaking condensation pump from an attic-mounted air-conditioning unit they’d been having problems with. Unbeknownst to Jim, the business that had installed and later unsuccessfully attempted to fix the AC unit (we’ll call the firm “AC Company”) had also left an electrical socket exposed and open, without a plastic guard to protect the wiring.

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Healing the Scars: Helping a Car Accident Survivor Move Forward from a Devastating Crash

Posted on Tue, Dec 2, 2014 @ 9:53 AM

How many times have you hopped into your car with friends or family to go get something to eat? Would you ever imagine that one of those times a member of your group would be killed in a car accident, and that you would have to bear the scars of the tragedy for the rest of your life?

Sarah Alvarez* never imagined such a thing would happen—until a negligent uninsured motorist changed her life forever. 

Five people were in the car: Alice* (Sarah’s sister), who was driving; Sarah, riding in the passenger seat; and Alice’s three children, riding in back.

The uninsured motorist hit them head-on, killing Alice on impact. The tremendous force of the collision caused Alice’s car to roll over several times and Alice’s body to come free from her seat belt. As the car came to rest on the passenger side, Alice’s body landed across Sarah, who was trapped in her seat. Sarah had to wait for what seemed an eternity, her sister’s lifeless body lying across her, before they could be freed from the wreckage.

Amazingly, there was some good news: The three children in back escaped physical injury, though they now faced the prospect of life without their mother. And Sarah, in spite of the nightmare she’d endured, also emerged with few physical injuries, save for a large gash across her forehead.

But the physical scar from that wound, not to mention the emotional scars from the whole experience, would remain with her long after the accident.

A Life Changed Forever

We sought compensation for Sarah based on the scar she sustained and the emotional nightmare associated with it. Every time she looked in the mirror and saw the scar at the top of her forehead, she relived the accident, the memory of her sister lying lifeless on top of her, of being trapped there, helpless to do anything for Alice.

The heartbreak and anxiety resulting from the crash was obvious. Sarah was no longer the bubbly, energetic teenage girl she’d been before the accident. Now she was downcast, rarely looking up at people, and extremely self-conscious about that scar, always trying to hide it with her hair.

Car Accident Victims vs. Insurance Companies

On behalf of Sarah, we first sued the driver who hit Alice’s car, but he was uninsured.  That forced us to sue the insurance company that had issued Alice and Sarah their uninsured motorist coverage. This might seem a bit odd—suing your client’s own insurance company—but it’s common in personal injury or car accident lawsuits.

In our experience, no matter whose insurance company it is, at the end of the day an insurance company is interested in one thing: making money. Even if you’ve been a loyal customer paying premiums on time over several years, and even if you’ve suffered serious injuries, they will do their best to pay out as little as possible on your claim.

Sarah’s insurance company initially offered her $10,000, which was a ridiculously low sum given what Sarah had endured—and what she still faced going forward. So we chose to let a jury decide what was fair. At trial, the insurance company’s lawyer downplayed Sarah’s scar and told the jury that it was hardly noticeable. We reminded the jury that a scar is only small when it’s on someone else’s face. The jury gave the highest verdict for a case involving a scar in the county’s history.

Obtaining the Greater Good

While we were happy with the jury’s verdict, our satisfaction really had less to do about the size of the award, and more about obtaining justice for a young woman devastated by a car accident. We hoped we could help bring some measure of closure so she could move forward.

All of this should be no surprise. When you put yourself in the shoes of clients and start to feel what they’re experiencing—all of the emotions, the grief of losing a loved one—you can’t help but be moved to do everything you possibly can for them.

And we weren’t the only ones moved by Sarah’s situation. One unforgettable scene at the end of the trial really hit home how much Sarah had been affected, and how much others wanted to help. After the jury found in Sarah’s favor, some women from the jury came down from where they’d been seated, hugged her, and said to this dejected, self-conscious young woman, “Listen. You look up at people. Look them in the eye. You’re a beautiful young girl and don’t let anyone tell you otherwise.”

It was a powerful moment.

A Young Life Moves Forward

Helpful, supportive words like those, as well as the closure that comes from seeing justice done, have had a wonderfully positive impact for Sarah as she’s struggled to create a new life for herself after surviving the car accident.

She’s since finished school and entered the workplace, and she’s done the best she can to put her tragedy behind her. We still talk a lot with her brother, Andres*, and he tells us she’s doing well.

And that’s really all we can ask for. Let’s face it: After a traumatizing experience like what Sarah went through, nobody can expect her to simply forget what happened. It will always be with her on some level—just like that scar.

But the positive outcome in a case like this often enables people who’ve suffered horrible tragedies to recognize that they’ve done everything they can for their lost loved one and their family, and it’s OK to move forward. 

*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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Honoring a Victim and Her Survivors in a Wrongful Death Case

Posted on Tue, Nov 18, 2014 @ 2:00 PM

We think it’s critical to remember what this statistic represents: each alcohol-related death happened to a special person with hopes, dreams, and goals someone with loved ones whose lives will forever be affected by such a tragedy. So as wrongful death attorneys, we always want to learn as much as possible about the individuals involved. That way we can obtain the best possible outcome for all.

A family is forever changed

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Helping One Family Move On After a Wrongful Death

Posted on Fri, Nov 14, 2014 @ 10:11 AM

It’s a natural human tendency to make assumptions and draw conclusions based on preconceived ideas or personal biases. One wrongful death case of ours not only illustrates this tendency, but demonstrates that some good can come from a tragedy as long as we set our preconceived notions aside and invest some extra time to discover the underlying facts of a case. 

Death of a child

This case involved a 9-year-old boy named John*. One afternoon John was playing with two of his friends at a vacant house in his impoverished neighborhood. Because the house was in disrepair, one of John’s friends was able to pull a spindle from the porch’s railing. For fun, the friend used the spindle to bang on one of the porch supports, which eventually gave way, causing the roof to collapse, crushing John and killing him.

It was a deep tragedy. And when John’s family sought legal support from several other wrongful death attorneys, they were told there wasn’t a case—that the boys were vandalizing the property and that such an event, albeit tragic, was essentially their own fault. 

Fortunately, for a number of reasons we took the case and, in the process, uncovered the truth underlying this tragedy.

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