Here’s the story of a man whose life was changed when he hit a huge patch of ice from a water leak on the way to work one winter morning. He wrecked his truck and broke his neck.
With surgery and months of recuperation, he was able to return to work. He turned to us to help him recover financially for his injuries and pain. The client’s name and some details have been changed to protect his privacy, but this is a true story.
It was not yet four a.m. and still dark that November morning in 2016 when Joe got into his pickup truck to drive an hour to the town where he worked in a warehouse. The weather was clear and bitterly cold as Joe drove down one two-lane state highway, then turning onto another. This was his usual route to work, and one he had taken four or five times a week for many years. He usually took a different way home so he could check in on his elderly parents in the afternoon.
The highway was lit only by his headlights. As he passed a stretch with a couple of houses and a closed-up used-car lot, without warning he drove onto a solid sheet of ice, 2-inches thick, covering the entire roadway.
Next thing I know, I’m on the ice, felt the truck go sideways. After that – there ain’t too much to tell.
By the time I saw it, it was too late. I was just in it, and it was just too late. There wasn’t nothing I could do.
I ended up – I was going along and the truck went sideways. From there it went into the ditch or the guardrail. I couldn’t tell you how I got knocked out. I don’t know how everything ended up.
As the police report put it, after Joe hit the ice, his truck “spun around on the roadway, crossed the centerline to the left and struck a guardrail end” before overturning and landing in a ditch.
He had broken his neck.
Joe was found unconscious in the cab of his truck, which was resting on its side in a ditch full of freezing water. Rescuers pulled him out.
I never did stand up. The best I can remember, they laid me down on the ground, and he kind of held my head, the best I can remember. The EMTs got here, and they put a neck brace on me. I think they got me up because the ground was unlevel, and I walked down toward where the ambulance was.
He was driven in an ambulance to the local county hospital.
The lady comes in and takes my neck brace off. Then all of a sudden, she run back in there. She said, Put this back on. She asked me if I ever had a neck injury before. I said, No. They put me back in the room. The doctor came in there in a couple of minutes, and he told me I broke my neck.
Joe was airlifted to the U.K. hospital in Lexington. He has badly injured, with a blood clot in the brain, a piece of bone pressing into a nerve in his neck, and damage to his shoulder and arm. After surgery and six months’ recuperation, he was able to get back into some of his daily activities.
I figured soreness, you know, and getting back – used to doing my job, things like that. But it’s getting to where I can’t sleep of a night. […] I do pretty good of a day. Like right now, I can feel it – you can always feel it’s there, but you can’t – it depends on what I do of a day. Like if I get out and work hard today, it will hurt worse of a night. Like I went and helped my dad get a load of firewood the other day. I loaded the wood, sat down in the truck, I could barely turn my head, you know.
He did have some permanent changes.
Before I could turn around look around, like normal people do, I guess. Now, when I go back up, I’ve got to use mirrors. I can’t turn my head. I can’t turn my head completely like I used to. I have to be more careful. I mean, because, you know, if you can’t turn your head, you’ve got to figure out other ways to do things, use your mirrors.
I have trouble remembering people’s names. Before it seemed like I could do pretty good. But since then, I have trouble. I don’t know why, but I just can’t remember. […] something I should be able to remember, it seems like I can’t. I don’t know why. But I do what I can do.
Joe returned to work, but after being out so long his old position wasn’t available and he had to take a different job on a different shift.
A few weeks after the wreck, Joe called the Gary C. Johnson, P.S.C. office closest to his home and one of our trial attorneys, Angie Pergrem Owens, set up an appointment to meet with him.
At the initial meeting, she began by making sure of three things:
First, that the potential client has experienced injuries that are suitable for compensation through the legal system. If you’ve just got a bruise or two, or just shaken up a bit, it may not make sense to go through the legal system. Here, Joe’s neck was broken, he had to have surgery, and faced months of painful recovery. The injury had changed his life.
Second, she found out that the injury was caused, or caused in large part, by someone else’s fault. Kentucky is what’s known as a comparative fault state. That means the injured party (the plaintiff) and the tortfeasor (the defendant) can share some of the fault and the plaintiff’s case won’t be dismissed if the plaintiff is partially to blame, only that the judgment awarded by the court will be reduced.
Here, the facts surrounding the accident showed Joe had done nothing wrong, and that someone else was responsible for the huge water leak that created a frozen lake filling the roadway overnight.
Third, we have to make sure we have enough time to file the lawsuit within the statute of limitations. In most car wrecks, it’s about two years. In a regular negligence case, it’s one year. Here, Joe signed a contract with us and his case was filed not long after his surgery, within a few months of the wreck.
A complaint is the legal pleading that is filed with the court to start the lawsuit. Joe’s complaint was filed and the defendant was officially served with a copy. After that, the discovery process started. At this time, the primary responsibility for Joe’s case was transferred to another lawyer in our firm, Scott Owens.
During discovery, each side can ask questions (“interrogatories”) and request documents from the other side. In Joe’s case, Scott asked questions about the defendant’s actions and knowledge related to the water leak. In turn, Scott helped Joe answer interrogatories about his injuries and compiled his medical records to send to the defendant. The defendant’s lawyer also took Joe’s deposition. That’s where a party is asked questions under oath in front of a court reporter. The purpose is to get the party’s responses on the written record.
Scott also hired an engineering expert to look at why the leak happened when and where it did. In a trial, an expert’s testimony might be needed to show the defendant’s negligence had caused a dangerous condition.
We were able to resolve Joe’s claims to his satisfaction. Despite lingering pain and difficulties in turning his head, Joe recovered well from his broken neck and was eventually able to return to work and back to his normal life with his family and church community. We can’t say anything more about Joe’s case specifically.
Speaking in general terms, though, personal injury cases that make it through the discovery phase described in Part Three normally are either settled at mediation or proceed to a courtroom trial in front of a jury.
A jury trial is a process that may take a number of days, beginning with the selection of jurors from a larger pool. Before the jury hears any evidence, the lawyers for each side out of the jury’s hearing will ask the judge to allow or exclude specific items of evidence. Both sides will take turns making opening statements and presenting evidence and witness testimony that usually includes the plaintiff and the defendant. Expert witnesses might also be called to give their professional opinions on how the accident occurred or the extend of the plaintiff’s injuries.
After all the evidence is taken, lawyers for each party make their closing arguments. The judge will then provide instructions to the jury before the members go to the jury room to deliberate in secret. Once the jury has arrived at a verdict, the judge will prepare and issue the official judgment.
Mediation is an alternative means of resolving civil disputes. Judges will normally require the parties to go before a mediator before allowing a trial. The party’s lawyers will work together to schedule the mediation after the discovery process is complete. Many personal injury cases in Kentucky settle before trial during mediation.
In mediation, the parties and their lawyers meet at the mediator’s office. The mediation begins with an opening presentation from each side, then the parties go to separate rooms while the mediator visits each side in turn, negotiating and relaying offers and counteroffers. The goal of mediation is to work out a fair settlement agreement, given the plaintiff’s injuries, the scope of the defendant’s likely liability at trial, and the defendant’s available insurance coverage.
If a settlement is reached, the plaintiff will agree to dismiss his or her lawsuit against the defendant
in exchange for the negotiated amount. In settling, the defendant does not admit liability. The settlement’s details, including the amount, usually remain confidential. The settlement amount in an injury case will go to the plaintiff, with portions set aside to repay the plaintiff’s health insurer, and pay the attorney’s fees and case expenses.
If you’ve been injured in an accident and think you might have a claim, please contact us and set up an appointment with a Gary C. Johnson, P.S.C. attorney.
This is a blog post, not specific legal advice. No attorney-client relationship is intended or created.