I don’t read many legal thrillers, or mysteries. I do enjoy Lisa Scottoline, her books are fast but also full of great characters and plot lines, and the lawyers aren’t depicted as scum of the universe like other titles I’ve scanned. I read one Scott Turow–his first, and no Grisham, and if there are other legal mysteries out there, I’ve passed them by. Perusing some titles in this genre, I was struck by the way personal injury solicitors are portrayed. Speaking of Scott Turow, he wrote a book, Personal Injuries, starring what one calls an ambulance chaser, and this fellow isn’t all that fabulous. He cheats on his dying wife, although loves her (?), bribes judges to rule his way, and is generally kinda scummy, at least from what I could tell via synopsis and reviews. That his character becomes more complex as the novel deepens, is comforting, because no one wants to like a morally corrupt protagonist. Do they? Hm. Another title I skimmed also had a personal injury lawyer, and he too was promiscuous, underhanded and unpleasant. Is this a stereotype created via fiction? Or based in factual reality?
I think probably both. I’m sure the majority of lawyers really care for their clients and want to do the best they can for them, money not being the dominant theme. However, there is no doubt there are some lawyers in the real world whose sole purpose is to make as much money suing hapless individuals using shaky proof as possible. I have three experiences in this area; The first, years ago my husband was circling the block looking for a parking space, a routine nightly ritual, when he ‘hit’ a older woman as she crossed the street. True, it was foggy, although he was driving at a snail’s pace, and as he turned a corner, a woman went down, but he swears his car never even brushed against the woman’s hairnet. She and a younger woman were moving at the crosswalk as he turned. What he says happened, is the younger woman urged the older one to hurry, even pulling her along, and the older woman fell. And apparently hurt her arm. And ankle. My husband saw no blood or injury, nothing was stated at the site about his hitting her. The ambulance arrived, took her away, and I swear, within 36 hours a notice was slid under our door of her intent to sue my husband’s insurance company for personal injuries and hospital costs, that exceeded–wait for it–$40,000! Two, two different lawyers sent out threats. His car insurance company, in the usual fashion, paid her off, thereby avoiding trial costs, even though they KNEW she wasn’t truthful, because it seems this particular lady had several personal injury suits pending! Either she was the unluckiest woman in the world, or a fraud. But they still paid–$30,000 bucks–the worth of his policy. Our belief is they had an entire system set up whereby a lawyer was waiting at the emergency room prepared to gather all the necessary documentation to get the suing ball rolling. It was so obvious it was fraud, my husband’s rates weren’t even raised.
The second was a real accident involving my father driving locally in town. A teen girl ran her bike into my father’s van at a stop sign. It was witnessed by bystanders, the girl admitted it out loud, concerned only that ‘her father was going to kill her when he saw her bike’ and the police gave my father a clean slate in regards to the accident. She had hurt her hand, but it wasn’t severed from her body, which I feel is the only reason she should have received $40,000 from my father’s insurance company after a lawyer claimed that her injuries damaged her for life. What it did do, was buy a new bicycle, as well as send her to college!
The last, I was a juror in a personal injury case, which was a big mistake for the court system, after having experienced both of these incidents. I was called for jury duty as everyone is in NYC at one time, and then called several more times–basically forever. I wanted to get on a jury. I mean, who wouldn’t want to sit on a jury deciding some perp’s fate? I was called to criminal court in Queens. Figure I’d get a judge who ‘tired’ of criminal cases and decided as a nice change of pace to sit on a personal injury case. When they asked questions of possible jurors, they didn’t ask the pertinent ones of me–such as–have you ever been involved in a personal injury case, has any one in your family been involved, etc? And another question they’d asked other jurors, which I would have answered honestly–‘will the fact that the victim doesn’t speak english although having lived in the US for over 20 years affect your judgment’? I’d have had to say yes. Because it irks me that my ancestors or relatives worked their butts off to learn the language of their new country in order to fit in and work, and there are those who don’t feel the necessity to speak the language within the country they call home. If I moved to Outer Mongolia, I’d had better learn the language. But, this is just a personal point of view, and only pertinent when sitting on a jury! And they stupidly didn’t ask me.
So, chosen, I listened to the facts of the case–the lady walks every day down a street to mass at her local church. Every day. For twenty years. Supposedly *only* on *one* specific side. So when workers were ripping up the side she walked on and she was forced to walk on the other side, a hole or uneven pavement caused her to fall. The suit is in two parts, and we were not to learn what her injuries were until after we decided whether the city was liable. She had already sued two personal properties–individuals who lived behind the sidewalk–a sidewalk that the city owned–but they were still somehow liable for. That irked me. But still, I was there to judge solely on the evidence, and to me after being presented with everything, the evidence was that as a person who walked the same route day in and out, there is no way in hell she didn’t alter her walking pattern to include the other side of the street, and walked over the rough spot, more than once. And, even if she never set foot on the accident prone sidewalk, is there some reason she couldn’t look where she was going? I mean, sure, there are holes here there and everywhere in NYC pavements–that’s why one tends to make sure one is paying attention to where one places each foot. But the really interesting aspect of this trial was the litigator–her lawyer. His dramatic style would have lent itself to an episode of Matlock, with a poor innocent on trial for murder. He was grandiose in language and gesture. And the city’s lawyer was absolutely opposite in every way. He was nervous, uninspired, ready to lose, which must be a typical experience for him–because personal injury cases against the city are rarely won by the city.
Not this time–this time myself and another woman argued the case of personal responsibility–that although there was a hole was in the pavement, sometimes, really, sometimes, a person should watch where they are going and take damn responsibility for tripping, falling or whatever may have transpired. The plaintiff’s lawyer’s histrionics not withstanding, the facts were such that the city was only liable to a certain degree. After the other jurors debated and mulled over the entire thing, we went back in to render a partial victory for the plaintiff, which is in reality, a victory for the city, because it just never ever wins even half a case. The injury lawyer was shocked. But not as much as the city’s lawyer. I don’t think he knew how to proceed.
They made us, the jury, come in the next day, because now we would enter the bestowing of gifts upon the victim–the money reward. But I guess the plaintiff’s lawyer wasn’t taking chances after he realized we weren’t in a giving mood, and they settled among themselves. When some of the jurors who were hesitant not to rule entirely for the victim, heard how much she would still get, they wanted to go back and change the verdict to the city having no responsibility in the entire thing! $30,000 was given to her and her lawyer, which in the end probably means she netted about ten grand. Considering the years it took to get to trial, it probably wasn’t a great haul.
As we were leaving the building, we had to share an elevator with the plaintiff’s lawyer–and he just couldn’t help himself, he had to know why–why did we only partially reward his client? Did we not believe her? Naturally, I piped up–I made it clear that I wasn’t convinced she hadn’t used the other side of the street in the last 20 years, and even if she hadn’t, she bore partial responsibility for her own injury. He still looked as though he’d fallen down the rabbit hole into an entirely different world where what are called accidents, are actually treated as ‘accidents’ which means, no one is responsible, because it was an ACCIDENT!
So, are personal injury lawyers in fiction stereotyped as crappy evil money grabbing people? Yes. But in my limited experience, it is at least based in some fact.