The case that follows tragically demonstrates the obstacles clients and their civil litigation lawyers face when trying to reach a positive long-term outcome beyond the courtroom.
A good worker under bad circumstances
Josh* was a meat inspector with the United States Department of Agriculture. He was a great guy: young, idealistic, dedicated. In addition, his strapping 6-foot-4 frame meant he wasn’t easily intimidated – excellent qualities for someone holding the line on USDA policy to ensure that the country’s food supply remained safe.
He was assigned to a hog-slaughtering operation in northern Ohio after complaints had come in that previous inspectors had been taking bribes to look the other way. Immediately he began seeing problems: labor laws seemed to be flouted, and diseased or injured animals were regularly slaughtered, a direct violation of USDA regulations.
Josh, of course, called attention to these things, which slowed down operations and effectively increased costs. Frustrated by Josh’s dedication to his job, the owner of the plant, who authorities in the area suspected was connected to organized crime, began concocting ways to get Josh to quit.
There was a long list of measures the owner took to harass and intimidate Josh. The owner registered complaints about Josh to his congressman and other authorities. He installed surveillance cameras where Josh worked. One day Josh’s car was sprayed with dirt and gravel. Another time, Josh found drugs that had been planted in his car.
Throughout it all, Josh was a rock. Unfazed.
Then things got really nasty. After the plant owner had a henchman swear out a complaint that Josh had solicited him for a sex act, the town’s sheriff – an elected official whose biggest contributor was the meatpacking plant – had him arrested. Josh was left handcuffed to a pole, standing in the middle of the sheriff’s department, for hours. Splashed across the headlines the next day was “Meat Packing Inspector Arrested for Soliciting Sex,” courtesy of the plant owner, who had contacted media outlets.
Providing civil litigation for a defamation victim
Because Josh was a federal employee, the U.S. Attorney’s Office stepped in to defend him, and the charges were quickly dropped – they had all been fabricated. Our firm became involved when Josh decided to file a defamation complaint against the meatpacking plant.
We filed lawsuits and obtained a great deal of background information and discovery, then pursued civil litigation in federal court. We’d been scheduled for trial, when the judge invited the parties to conduct what’s called a summary jury trial.
With a summary jury trial, a jury is summoned and presented evidence in a much abbreviated form and over the course of a few days instead of a week or more, and the jury believes that it’s hearing a real lawsuit. Then it deliberates and issues a nonbinding decision, which gives the parties an idea of how an actual trial might proceed.
The summary jury listened to the evidence we presented and awarded Josh a $1 million verdict for defamation and psychological harm. Not surprisingly, the meatpacking plant owner realized he had no chance of successfully defending himself in civil court, so the case was quickly settled after that.
Tragedy beyond the courtroom
The story should have ended there, but sadly, Josh’s ordeal had only just begun. The stress of the phony solicitation allegations caused Josh – an outdoorsy guy, seemingly invincible – to suffer an incredible psychological break. He was diagnosed with posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD), and the results were devastating.
How does one adequately describe the slow, gradual decay of a human being’s psyche? There was paranoia, divorce, anger issues. Sobbing phone calls from a man unable to reconcile his powerful emotions.
We tried to bring in family members who could provide support, and we encouraged him when he started seeing a psychiatrist. Gradually, though, in spite of our attempts to help him and stay in touch, we lost track of Josh.
About four years after the case ended, we got the worst imaginable news. In Michigan, where he had moved, Josh had apparently barricaded himself and his girlfriend in a house. Police were called and there had been a standoff, and then the unthinkable had happened: Josh killed his girlfriend and himself.
Trying to heal
This is one of those tragedies that will live with us forever. As lawyers, we know we did all we could, working within the civil justice system to get justice for Josh and the best possible settlement. And we know we did the best we could outside of the courtroom, too – guiding him to counseling, providing support, and just being there for him when his anxiety became overwhelming.
Our involvement with him wasn’t at all unusual. We try to have close associations with our clients that last well beyond their cases, and we try to help them look beyond the litigation.
Frequently, we’ll tell them, “You can’t let the litigation drive your life and you can’t live your life according to the outcome of the case, because who knows the outcome of a lawsuit?” We’re always worried that clients will delay the healing or grieving process, not allowing closure until the lawsuit comes to an end.
If we think it will help, we’ll encourage them to seek family counseling, or marital counseling, or vocational counseling, or vocational training – whatever it takes to find a way to move beyond their misfortune and pain and live the life they intended.
Yet for all that, Josh – a good man, a client, and a friend of ours – is dead. And in spite of all we did, it’s almost impossible to not feel as if we somehow failed him. It’s something we will never get over.
Recovering through relationships
So we work tirelessly. We do everything in our power to build meaningful relationships with our clients so that we can understand not just their legal needs, but their underlying emotional and psychological needs as well.
When we talk with them, we’re truly listening so that we can recognize those needs and help find the resources they will need to move forward with their lives. That may be mental health professionals, clergypersons, or even financial counselors. And we’re familiar with the symptoms associated with PTSD, as well as professionals in the area who are trained to treat it.
We’re not doctors or psychiatrists or mental health professionals, but at the same time we recognize, first and foremost, that clients are people, just like us. We recognize that each client is someone who is navigating a devastating chapter in their life, which is why we take our responsibility as attorneys and counselors so seriously.
*Names in this article have been changed to protect our client’s privacy.
The outcome of any client’s case will depend on the particular legal and factual circumstances of the case.