This is a story about how a young couple’s life got upended by a horrifying tractor-trailer accident on I-85, resulting in a broken back for a hardworking fella.
The outcome of the case shows why we don’t get hung up on medical bill amounts to value a case, especially in an 18-wheeler crash. It also shows how an experienced attorney helps severely injured clients by doing simple but hard things: finding evidence, analyzing it, and using it strategically to develop a strong case to achieve a client’s goals.
How We Came to Gary and Roberta
At the time of the crash, Gary was 39, and Roberta was 44. Gary had just realized a unique aspect of the American Dream: he’d just started his own business. He worked a highly physical job as a car appraiser at auto auctions, which required him to do thorough evaluations of cars, including getting underneath them. He was excited about the potential to finally work for himself.
Roberta was a devoted civil servant to some of the most vulnerable people in society: children. She worked as a children’s victim advocate in a women’s domestic abuse center. She supported traumatized children through some of the worst upheavals in their lives when they got uprooted from a dangerous home to literally hide from their mothers’ abusive partners. A key job for Roberta was just providing them with fun and a tremendous amount of emotional support.
We’d represented Roberta before. I got the original referral for her from the strangest source—the opposing party in a case I worked on. That person was a friend of Roberta. When Roberta needed a lawyer, she actually recommended her to me instead of her own lawyer. I’m not sure I’ve ever gotten a higher compliment.
After the crash, Roberta contacted me for Gary. Because Gary hurt too badly to come to my office, I gladly met them at their home. Both of them wanted an experienced semi-truck accident attorney. They feared getting cheated by the trucking company’s insurance company, who they expected to employ hardball tactics to get out of the case with a cheap settlement. Those fears ended up being well-founded, even after I got involved.
But that changed in the end.
The Horrifying Wreck on I-85 With an 18-Wheeler
As Gary obeyed the speed limit and drove in the slow lane on I-85 from Spartanburg to Greenville, his life literally got turned upside down. A trucker driving a tractor and semi-trailer made an improper lane change, moving from the center lane into the slow lane, directly into Gary. The trucker slammed into him at 60 MPH, causing a violent tractor-trailer accident. The powerful impact was simply terrifying: Gary’s Hyundai two-door car went airborne from the slow lane all the way across the center lane and the fast lane, stopping against the concrete median next to the opposite direction of traffic.
Gary got hurt badly in the wreck with the semi-truck. He sustained an L-1 vertebra compression fracture and T-12 spinous process fracture.
His medical bills ended up around $40,000. Luckily, he used health insurance to pay them, resulting in a lower repayment for Gary. While he didn’t require an operation, his broken back left him in agony for months. His orthopedist ordered him to wear a back brace, prescribed powerful narcotics for pain like oxycodone and hydrocodone, and kept him out of work for six months.
Critical Things Our Team Did That Made a Huge Difference in Gary and Roberta’s Case
Shortly after getting hired, we went to work building their case from the ground up. Here are the most important things we did.
1. We gathered important evidence. Just about every attorney who handles car accidents knows to get the official traffic report, but tractor-trailer cases are different. They require more, and that includes getting more evidence from the police if it exists. I sent a Freedom of Information Act request to the South Carolina Highway Patrol for ALL evidence they had in the case. It revealed an enormous goldmine: the investigating trooper made a video of the scene to record his observations.
In the video, as he investigates the scene, the trooper states there are no skid marks. That meant the trucker never applied the brakes. The trooper discusses the case with another trooper who helped investigate, and they expressed their shock that the trucker never locked the brakes down. The also revealed after the trucker hit Gary, he drove another 3/10 of a mile, pounding, then flinging Gary’s car down the interstate. These law enforcement professionals who investigate crashes for a living are so shocked he never stopped that they wonder if he fell asleep.
I used this as powerful evidence the trucker exercised no care, strengthening our argument for punitive damages.
2. We chased down a vital, surprising witness: another trucker. Luckily, he didn’t try to help a fellow trucker cover his tracks. He honestly described how he saw Gary’s car fly all the way across the interstate “like an Olympic diver twisting in the air.”
3. We pounded the insurance company with information. We didn’t just send medical bills and records to the insurance company without explanation. I had the records summarized, and I analyzed them to tell that part of the story to the insurance company in several detailed letters. That’s really hard, grinding work for an attorney, and I’ve seen many who just don’t do it. But it hurts the value of the client’s case and keeps you as a lawyer from doing the most important job: knowing the case thoroughly so you can do a thorough evaluation.
Most importantly, I repeatedly got reports from both Gary and Roberta on the impact this had on his life and the ability to live it. Most people call this “pain and suffering,” but that just doesn’t cover the whole equation, so I call it human loss. I sent detailed reports to the insurance company on how Gary and Roberta struggled, starting from day one.
Later, these medical and human loss reports would prove critical in obtaining a solid settlement.
4. To summarize and highlight the full extent of his injuries, I met personally with a critical witness and got a powerful piece of evidence. In a serious injury case, one of the most important witnesses is the doctor. I met with Gary’s doctor to discuss the final toll these injuries would take on his life. That resulted in a simple but compelling piece of evidence: a three-page questionnaire with the doctor’s yes or no answers and initials. It covered the precise injuries the wreck caused, the powerful medications he treated it with, and the fact Gary wore a back brace for about 2 ½ months. It explained that Gary couldn’t work for just over six months, and would have permanent injuries that caused lifelong pain and physical limitations, plus a permanent impairment rating to his lumbar spine of 20% and future arthritis.
5. While the extent of his human loss I touched on above was long and won’t end, I highlighted certain aspects of it beyond just physical pain. One of them was the fear of losing his career due to his physical limitations, meaning the loss of his American dream as a business owner.
Despite all this overwhelming evidence, I wasn’t surprised when the insurance company wouldn’t come near our settlement offer. That required further action.
The Insurance Company Refused to Settle, So We Filed Suit
When the insurance company won’t work with you for a settlement that reflects the strength of your case, it’s not over if you have an experienced attorney. We filed a lawsuit.
In my career, I’ve found people are generally afraid of filing a lawsuit. But this case shows why that fear is largely unfounded, especially when the insurance company is too greedy, and since it helped Gary and Roberta achieve their case goals.
When the defense lawyer for the trucker and trucking company’s insurance company contacted me, it was clear she recognized the insurance company undervalued Gary and Roberta’s case.
Most importantly, she shared the insurance company put a high value on extensive evidence, so the wealth of information I’d already shared with them gave her plenty of ammunition to reason with them.
A Successful Outcome Helps People Move on to the Future
Defense counsel was actually hoping we could settle before doing a tremendous amount more work. I was thankful for her honesty and professionalism. She could’ve held onto the case and insisted on conducting long, drawn-out discovery and dragging the case through court. She didn’t do that. She realized it wasn’t in her client’s best interests. In further discussions, it became clear she had the insurance company’s ear.
Settlement offers increased dramatically to a point Gary, Roberta, and I realized we could resolve the case.
Within about three months of filing the suit, which ended up in Federal Court, we reached a settlement of $395,000.
Most important to me, Gary and Roberta were pleased. It helped them recover fully from the financial damage of being out of work so long. Even better, it helped them both move on to a brighter future.
I’m glad our team got to be a part of that. There’s nothing better than fully satisfied clients. I’m always happy to do a lot of hard work to get the result my people need.