Wednesday, July 8, 2009

When in Doubt - The Truth is Always the Right Answer

Over 20 years ago, I was handling a case in Everett, Washing-ton; defending a young law school student who had the misfortune of rear-ending a woman on a wet street on a rainy day. The client was embarassed by his inability to stop; but felt solace when he got out of the car and noticed that the only damage to the woman's car was a slightly bent rear license plate holder. No one was hurt. They exchanged the standard information and went on their way. My client was astonished when, a few years later, he was sued.

I started looking into the woman's claims. She had a myriad of complaints - her neck, her back, headaches, etc. And further, she claimed that she had suffered brain damage from the accident; and that her psychiatrist had recommended in-patient cognitive treatment. She had run up over $15,000 in chiropractic bills (a huge sum 20 years ago), and needed $25,000 for the cognitive treatment. She also claimed that she had been unable to work since the accident. This was a huge claim and she wanted compensation.

The woman had further claimed that prior to the accident, she had never had any neck problems, back problems or headaches that required medical intervention or treatment. She had told this to me; and to her psychiatrist. But as I was reviewing her medical records, I came across a reference to a prescription for Tylenol 3, written about 6 months before her accident; a drug typically given by doctors for significant pain complaints. The prescription was written by a doctor who the woman had not properly identified. I quickly obtained those records; only to find reference to neck pain, back aches, and headaches. And also a referral to a mental health clinic. I rushed to obtain those records, too. The woman had not disclosed the clinic, either.

So fast forward to trial. Her psychiatrist is on the stand. He's testifying about her condition and her need for cognitive treatment. He made an impressive witness on her behalf; but then it was my turn to cross-examine the doctor. I asked him whether she had suffered from pre-accident neck pain, back aches or headaches. He said "no." I asked him if she had any pre-accident mental health conditions or complaints of depression or memory problems. Again, he said "no." And the doctor testified that his opinion -- that her current problems were related to our accident -- was based on the fact that his patient did not have any pre-accident problems of that nature. I then pulled out the records I had recently obtained and began asking whether he was aware of the various pre-accident symptoms. In each case he said "no." And then I asked him whether the existence of those symptoms during the 6-8 months prior to the accident might serve to change his mind. The doctor said: "They might. I'd need to look at the records."

Well, I looked at the clock. It was 5 minutes to noon. I said to the Judge: "That sounds fair, Judge. Perhaps we can break for lunch now, and the doctor can review these records over the lunch break?" The judge agreed. I handed a copy of the records to the doctor, and he left for lunch. Shortly before court reconvened, I ran into the psychiatrist in the hallway, and he handed me back the stack of records, commenting "Wow, I had no idea!" That's all I needed to hear. Back on the stand, I asked the doctor whether, following his review of the records, he had a change of opinion. Not surprisingly, the woman's psychiatrist recanted all of his prior testimony; indicating that everything she complained about to him following our accident was something she had complained of during the few months before the accident. With that, her case unraveled quickly.

After closing arguments, the jury went into the jury room to deliberate. I packed up my bags, jumped in my car, and drove over to my wife's grandmother's home. She only lived 10 minutes from the court. As I walked in the door, the phone rang. It was the court clerk, advising me that the jury was ready to return a verdict and I had to return immediately.

I'm sure you can guess the result. Despite a clear-liability rear-end accident, the jury returned a verdict against my client in the amount of $0! Once it was apparent that the woman had lied to her doctor and to me (and probably to her own attorney, too), the jury was unwilling to believe anything she said. She got nothing!!

So what's the moral of the story? It's pretty basic, isn't it? Tell the truth. Tell the truth to your doctors; tell the truth to your attorney; tell the truth to the other attorney. Just tell the truth; period. It's often said: you'll never have trouble remembering the truth; it's lies in which you can get mixed up. Stick to the truth. Maybe you won't hit the 'home run' you were hoping for in court; but more likely, you'll get the fair compensation you deserve. Lie, and you'll get nothing (or worse).