In a catastrophic injury trial on damages alone, a life care plan is often the pivot on which an award turns. In the face of a defense offer that is more than most jurors will see in their lifetimes, for example, a well-prepared plaintiffs’ life care plan can convincingly detail the reasons a much larger award is needed.
Sometimes, however, a life care plan can provide unexpected ammunition for a case beyond the numbers involved. In Nelson v. Emory Healthcare, defense questions about a life care expert’s failure to bargain hunt led to a pointed plaintiff’s closing and an eight-figure verdict.
Cris Nelson was paralyzed in a 2012 fall from an Emory Healthcare clinic exam table. Although Nelson’s condition had improved since the fall, and he was able to walk short distances with the aid of crutches, he could not return to work, required specialized medical equipment, and needed help from his wife and others for even the most basic daily hygiene activities. Emory admitted liability before the trial, leaving the amount of damages as the only question for the jury.
But the sides were far apart in their damage requests. The Bell Law Firm’s Lloyd Bell, representing Nelson and his wife Deborah, requested between $28 million and $48.5 million for the couple. Emory’s attorney, Hall Booth Smith’s John Hall, told jurors $4.54 million was appropriate.
During closing arguments Hall told the jury he was sympathetic to Nelson’s life-altering fall. “Nobody doubts that Mr. Nelson has a severe, tragic injury. Emory believes that he should get several million dollars to be able to live his life as normally as possible,” Hall said. “The question is being fair to both sides, which is what the law requires.”
But Hall argued plaintiffs’ claim for damages was excessive and unsupported. During closings, Hall criticized Nelson’s life care plan prepared by Cathy Gragg-Smith as a plaintiffs’ trial tool that inflated the damage claim. “Why use a life care plan that is something that is just created by lawyers to put up damages?” Hall asked. “Why not acknowledge that life care plans are not created for health care purposes?”
John Hall asks life care planner Cathy Gragg-Smith if she considered various discounts and coupons on medication when preparing a life care plan for Cris Nelson.
Bell countered that Hall’s cross-exam of Gragg-Smith, including whether she considered coupons and discounts for Nelson’s medication when preparing the life care plan, showed Emory wanted to shirk its responsibility for Nelson’s injuries. During closings, Bell held up a sheet of coupons for the jury. “Is it right that [the Nelsons] should have to go to the Sunday paper or the kiosk outside of a drugstore and clip coupons to pay for the very medication made necessary by [Emory’s] negligence?” Bell asked.
Bell also hammered the defense for questioning why Gragg-Smith hadn’t looked at the possibility of free services when preparing her life care plan. “They’ve taken away [Nelson’s] dignity as it is,” Bell said, “And now they suggest that he should go hat-in-hand around rural Newton County looking for free stuff, looking for free services. Handouts.”
The jury ultimately returned a $15 million verdict.
Email Arlin Crisco at [email protected].
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