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Civil Rights

Learning From the Loss of a Member of the Cooper & Elliott Family

Our blog contains many tales of the cases we handle. In every one, we give our perspective as the attorneys who handled the case. And in each one the names are changed so we can protect our clients from the painful reality of their experiences.

This time will be different.

My name is Rex Elliott. I am a founding attorney at Cooper & Elliott, and I’d like to tell you the story of the crash that began the series of events leading to my father’s death. Obviously, this is a painful time and a hard story to tell, but I feel there are important lessons that everyone can learn from our experience.

My dad was 78 years old, in good health, lived on his own in our childhood home, was self sufficient, drove his own car, went to meetings and worked part time in his insurance business.  One late Saturday afternoon in May, he was running errands when he turned left out of a gas station and a reckless driver smashed into the driver’s door of his car at a high rate of speed.

My dad’s injuries were severe and he broke every bone up the left side of his body; including all of his ribs, his hip, his leg in two places and four vertebrae.  He suffered from severely punctured lungs due to his broken ribs, a lacerated spleen and substantial internal bleeding. When I arrived at the hospital, there wasn’t a lot of optimism.

The accident report

Before he went into surgery that day, I asked my dad what happened. Through his pain, he said he looked both ways and waited for a car that was coming from one direction. There was nobody coming from the other direction, he thought, so he pulled out, and was T-boned by a car he never saw. That was the last chance I had to talk to him for a month, because after the surgery he was on a ventilator and in a coma.

I read the police report the following Monday. The officer had talked only to the other driver, who said that she was driving the speed limit (35 MPH), and my dad simply turned in front of her.

That didn’t match what my dad had said.

Over the next month, while we waited for him to wake up, the circumstances nagged at me. The officer hadn’t tried to speak to my dad (or to me), and hadn’t interviewed any eyewitnesses, even though the accident occurred on a busy corner at 4:30 p.m. on a Saturday. There must have been people who saw it happen. Instead, the police report simply concluded that the accident was my dad’s fault.

On the weekend of the auto accident, we had no information about the condition of the other driver—if she was hurt, whether she’d been taken to the hospital, nothing. On Monday, shortly after the police report came out, we learned she hadn’t been hospitalized or treated for anything—but she was claiming soft-tissue injuries, whiplash, and she had already retained an attorney based on the accident report alleging that the crash was my dad’s fault.

But I believed, based on my dad’s lucid description of the crash that he might not be at fault at all.  Thank God I followed my instincts.

Reconstructing the accident

To find out what really happened, we set out to reconstruct the crash, using surveillance videos from the gas station and from the business next door. We learned that the other driver had approached the intersection at a high rate of speed, passing cars on the left, and she didn’t even brake before she hit my dad’s car. We surmised that she had to have been distracted by something, or not even looking, when she crashed into him. After reviewing the video, the police department estimated her speed at 53 to 56 mph, well over the speed limit, and much faster than the 35 mph limit mentioned in the police report (the department has a lot of experience with this area since it has been ranked as the most dangerous intersection in Columbus).

The bottom line is that the crash happened precisely as my father said it had, as he was fighting for his life in the emergency room of Grant Hospital.  He waited for the eastbound car he could see and then made his turn, only to be hit by the westbound car he couldn’t see, because it came upon him out of nowhere, at an unsafe and extraordinarily reckless rate of speed.

The accident’s lessons

Although my dad’s auto accident happened relatively recently, we have already established liability on the part of the other driver. One big lesson that was reinforced for me as an attorney is a simple one: Listen to people. When my dad first started telling me about the accident in the emergency room, even I thought he might not have it entirely straight, given his age and the serious injuries he had suffered. But, I was wrong—his description of the events of that day was extremely accurate. When a client describes a situation, no matter how unlikely their version of events might seem, it’s our job to listen to them and take their statement at face value as we investigate what the facts will establish.

Another big lesson: Don’t automatically assume a police report is accurate. In my dad’s case, there were no eyewitness interviews and no attempt to look at video evidence. The report was grossly inaccurate. We don’t necessarily blame the officer—it was a busy intersection, and his focus was on clearing the scene. He didn’t know the full extent of my dad’s injuries either. But the fact remains that if we hadn’t believed what my dad said in the emergency room, the official record of what happened would have been flat-out wrong.

Sadly, a few months after the accident, my dad passed away. This doesn’t change the lessons that have been reinforced by the circumstances of the accident.  And it doesn’t change the way I, and all of our attorneys, approach each case—with a sincere sense of empathy.  What has changed is that I will no longer have to try to understand what is in the hearts and minds of our clients.  The simple fact is I now know exactly how it feels to lose a loved one due to the careless conduct of another.

*The outcome of any client’s case will depend on the particular legal and factual circumstance of the case.