On a June morning in 2016, Richard Terlingen came to Denver District Court for a case management conference. He was rolling down the hallway using a sip-and-puff wand to drive his heavy-duty extra-large electric-power wheelchair. He mis-judged the courtroom entrance by an inch or so on the right and bashed into the door frame. Richard cussed softly to himself and backed out. He was a big man in a big wheelchair. Richard Terlingen, age 61, was paralyzed from the neck down. He was a quadriplegic (medical term: “tetraplegic”). He had no movement or sensation in his arms, legs or trunk. Before his injury, Richard stood 6’6” and weighed about 260. An award-winning media salesman, he had a big voice, and a direct manner.
When the case was called his wife joy-stick’d Richard up to the well of the courtroom. The court had a busy docket. Other lawyers and courtroom observers figured Richard had a big case. True. Most people assume that if there are big and obvious injuries in a case that these inevitably convert into big money verdicts and settlements. You show up. The defense sees your client. They pay. False. To get the top result by settlement or trial, the injured person’s lawyer must work up the case and be ready to present hard evidence in order to prove damages. In Richard’s case, we planned on 5 expert witnesses on damages.
EXPERT WITNESS #1: Responding Senior Paramedic. He would testify that Richard had no sensation or movement in his arms or legs. Richard was in critical condition and deteriorating. Within 14 minutes he had assessed Richard’s vital signs, activated an emergency code at the hospital, immobilized him on a gurney in the ambulance, and handed him off to the trauma team at Denver Medical Center. By showing how critically injured Richard was, we were able to establish a baseline explanation for the $2 Million in medical billings in the case.
EXPERT WITNESS #2: Orthopedic Spinal Surgeon. Richard’s spinal cord injury was treated by one of the country’s most experienced, and well-trained spinal surgeons. Using x-rays, he would testify as to the anatomy of the injury and how the spinal cord injury permanently destroyed Richard’s ability to move his limbs, or to have sensation in his body below the injury level at his spine. The spinal cord does not have to be “severed” in order to cause paralysis. An injury which disrupts the blood flow or bruises the spinal cord can cause permanent spinal cord injury.
EXPERT WITNESS #3: Attending medical doctor, Rehabilitation and Spinal Cord Specialist. Richard was admitted to Craig Hospital, the top SCI/TBI Rehabilitation Hospital in the United States. The rehabilitation doctor guided a team of therapists and specialists during Richard’s 4-month hospital stay. He would testify that Richard’s diagnosis was C-4 complete tetraplegia—Richard would never regain movement or sensation below his collar bone. The attending would testify in detail about Richard’s hospitalization, rehabilitation and prognosis, and that Richard’s remaining life expectancy, due to his injury, was reduced to 9.5 years.
EXPERT WITNESS #4: Consulting Life Care Planner (LCP). We hired a specialist to project what Richard’s medical and health care needs would be for his remaining life expectancy. She calculated the reasonable billings to date and the cost of round-the-clock care, what assistive devices Richard would need, transport, medical appointments and probable hospitalizations.
EXPERT WITNESS #5: Consulting forensic economist. The job of the economist is to quantify lost income and employment benefits, future medical and healthcare expenses, the costs of home
improvements to make Richard’s home wheelchair accessible, what a lift-equipped van would cost, and to calculate the cost of the life care plan. A good economist projects a range of value for an aggregate fund in today’s dollars, to compensate the injured person for probable future losses. In Richard’s case she calculated $10.6 - $11.3 Million was needed for Richard’s life expectancy.
MOST IMPORTANT WITNESS: Richard Terlingen. As lawyers, we can put all the experts on the stand that the court will allow. However, the tipping point for any “big case,” is the injured person’s own testimony. The jury wants to see and hear for themselves how the harms and losses have affected the injured person’s life. They must judge his credibility based upon his demeanor, strength of memory, consistency of testimony, and subjective factors weighing on bias and interest. As Atticus Finch would say, “you never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view.” Richard’s good humor, stamina, love of his family, his faith, humility, and courage would give the jury an opportunity to understand his life, and his losses. Today, Richard and his family live in a totally renovated home. The floors are a special concrete, flat and wheelchair friendly. There are no doors. Room entries are extra-wide. Tables and fixtures are especially designed to accommodate Richard’s needs. He doesn’t often bash into things. But when he does, he makes a few quiet remarks, backs up and tries again. It takes an experienced lawyer to present damages in a big case.