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$21 Million Verdict in a Contested Motor Vehicle Case

Nick Rowley has done it again, this time obtaining a $21 million verdict in a contested liability motor vehicle case.

The Collision

Nick’s client, Danielle Laws, was a European fitness model who had just moved to California on a work visa. Humble and soft-spoken with no family and few friends nearby, the twenty-eight-year-old had just begun to make a name for herself in the states. She had lived frugally in her tiny apartment, a small motor scooter her only means of transportation. The same scooter she was driving the day Dr. Andrew Chen struck her with his Range Rover. She had been in America for only four months.

The defendant, Dr. Andrew Chen, owned and ran a corporate practice as a dental anesthesiologist. On October 1, 2011, Chen hit the gas pedal of his supercharged Range Rover at an intersection, launching his SUV from the northbound stop sign through two lanes of eastbound traffic, a median, and then two lanes of westbound traffic. When he blasted through the four lanes of traffic and a median, he darted out in front of Ms. Laws, forever changing her life with his choice.

Ms. Laws had been driving westbound on Sunset in the number one lane on her small motor scooter, which had a maximum speed of 35 mph. Dr. Chen’s Range Rover could get from 0-35 mph in less than 1.5 seconds. Ms. Laws had had less than a second to perceive and react to the imminent collision.

Dr. Chen jumped out of his vehicle after crashing into Ms. Laws, who had had the legal right of way. Instead of helping the girl who was lying on the ground unconscious and unmoving with her front teeth knocked out, he loudly announced, “It’s not my fault, it’s not my fault.” An independent witness saw the events leading up to the collision and heard Dr. Chen deny liability.

Dr. Chen then pulled Ms. Laws’s demolished motor scooter out of traffic and sat there on the pavement with her head in his lap as she drifted in and out of consciousness. Ms. Laws regained consciousness after a couple minutes, screaming in agony, right before the paramedics arrived. The paramedics wrote down that she had a Glascow Coma Scale of 15 (normal) and that she had no loss of consciousness. They focused on her two broken wrists, broken nose, knocked out teeth, and broken left femur. Dr. Chen told the police officer that he had stopped at the stop sign and at the median, and that he only hit Ms. Law because she “came out of nowhere.” The police report reflected that Dr. Chen had claimed the collision wasn’t his fault. Dr. Chen drove away, leaving Ms. Laws on the pavement with the paramedics.

The Fallout

Ms. Laws’s life was forever changed that afternoon when many of her noneconomic assets were taken from her. This case was almost entirely about noneconomic damages because Ms. Laws didn’t have a history of earning much money, and the economic damages for her medical bills would go to her past and future health care providers.

Ms. Laws was taken to Cedars-Sinai Medical Center in Los Angeles. She had no one, save a few friends to rely on. One of whom happened to be Nick Rowley, who knew her from the gym. Nick first visited her during her third day at the hospital. Her front teeth were missing, both her arms and left leg were in a cast, and her nose was taped. He could barely recognize her.

Nick was there when her boyfriend broke up with her over the phone, saying he was unwilling to stay with her now that she was injured. Nick stayed during the phone call, and sat in her hospital bed and held her as she sobbed blood and tears. It was then that Nick promised Ms. Laws that he would make sure that she would be okay.

Due to an illegal action on the part of her insurance carrier, Ms. Laws had no health insurance. Since there was no confirmation of who was at fault, or that Dr. Chen’s insurance would cover costs, Cedars-Sinai told Ms. Laws that she would be immediately discharged. Lying in the hospital bed with undiagnosed brain trauma (the hospital’s primary focus had been on her orthopedic injuries), and with Cedars Sinai uninterested in spending more money working up a patient who had no health insurance, Ms. Laws was going to be put out on the curb. Ms. Laws’s father flew out from the UK and Nick promised him he would take care of his daughter.

Dr. Chen and his insurers refused to offer a single penny of compensation for noneconomic damages. The basis of their argument was California Civil Code 3333.4 (better known as Prop 213, it prohibits noneconomic damages when the plaintiff is uninsured). Ms. Laws’s insurance carrier had illegally breached its insurance contract (Ms. Laws had paid it in full many months before), and canceled her insurance policy. They had given her notice just a few days before the collision that her policy was canceled because she didn’t have a California drivers license.

Under California law, this was an illegal ground for canceling her policy and was a breach of her insurance contract. Nonetheless, Dr. Chen’s insurers used this as a basis to deny her injury claim. They refused to offer a single penny of noneconomic damages, and took the position that Ms. Laws was not entitled to any noneconomic damages under Prop 213. As Ms. Laws was rehabilitating, the insurance companies responded on behalf of Dr. Chen and gave notice of denial of Ms. Laws’s injury claims.

The Lawsuit

The battle to recover and the battle of the lawsuit began. Nick got Ms. Laws to the best doctors that Los Angeles had to offer, going so far as to recruit resources from both UCLA and USC to address the large number of her injuries. Nick demanded the insurance company pay $4.5 million early on through a statutory offer to compromise (if the defense does not pay and if that number is beat at trial, prejudgment interest at the rate of 10 percent plus expert costs are owed from the date of the offer). The insurance companies responded by offering $1 million (for economic damages), also by offer of compromise.

The defense claimed, and hired experts, to say that Ms. Laws was negligent. They argued that she could and should have avoided the collision. Nick disagreed and further took the position that Ms. Laws’s policy cancellation was null and void because it was illegal. Nick and his law firm ended up suing Ms. Laws’s insurer for declaratory relief and the insurer almost immediately agreed the cancellation was illegal and reinstated Ms. Laws’s insurance policy.

This didn’t change the position of Dr. Chen or his insurers, and not a penny was offered for noneconomic damages. Four and a half years passed, economic damages that exceeded the $5.5 million policy were presented, and trial commenced before the defense’s offer increased from $1 million to the $5.5 million policy limit. This late offer was rejected and Nick Rowley and Haytham Faraj cotried the case together before a jury in Santa Monica. A venue that many of California’s top trial lawyers warned them was among the worst and most conservative.

After four and half years, more than 400 medical appointments, eight surgeries, fifty physicians, over $1 million in medical bills, the successful lawsuit against her insurer to reinstate Ms. Laws’s insurance coverage, and seven trial continuances, Dr. Chen filed a motion to preclude Ms. Laws’s claim for noneconomic damages. The trial judge, who was assigned to the case at the last minute (the case went through four judges), agreed and granted the motion. Ms. Laws’s noneconomic damages were gone. Nick described the day when the trial judge struck the noneconomic damages in this case as the worst day of his legal career because he cared so much about Ms. Laws and felt he had failed her.

That night, Nick’s team prepared a Writ Petition to the California Court of Appeal, praying for an emergency order reversing the judge’s ruling. The chances of a Writ Petition being granted are less than 1 percent in California. Despite the long odds, the California Court of Appeals issued an order within seven hours of the petition’s filing to command the trial judge to reverse her order and allow Ms. Laws to proceed with trial and present evidence of her noneconomic damages.

The insurance companies brought in an insurance defense trial specialist who touts on their website as having a complex trial team that is often called upon to “parachute in” at the last minute to save the day. This law firm claims they are the best insurance defense trial lawyers around, and publish a long list of vanquished plaintiff lawyers on their website. Once their motion to throw out noneconomic damages was reversed, they immediately offered the $5.5 million policy limits. Nick responded with “that ship has sailed.”

Nick and Haytham worked together for months to prepare for trial. They planned to, and did, a classic Trial Lawyers College style voir dire. Nothing fancy or clever, but 100 percent connected to the jury because of their willingness to listen.

Several of the jurors took Nick and Haytham up on their request to be “brutally honest” during voir dire. Some of them verbally beat Nick up, saying that he was a lawyer who was in it for the money, and that lawyers end up getting all the money by using injured people.

Nick wasted no energy defending himself. He just listened and said, “You are right, that is how it works, and it’s sad, you are right to feel that way.” As Gerry Spence teaches, the rest of the jury came to save him every time.

The trial lasted six weeks, including jury selection. Nick and Haytham examined over forty witnesses and referenced thousands of documents. It was a very difficult case due to the number of witnesses, the disputed liability, the experts on dangerous intersections, the medical terminology, and the sheer volume of information. It wasn’t a case that could be condensed into a simple, easy-to-follow story.

The Results

When it was over, the jurors deliberated for four full days before they delivered a message on behalf of Ms. Laws. Their message was this: the value of Ms. Laws’s injuries and damages was over $21.6 million (over $6.6 million in past and future economic damages, $5 million in past noneconomic damages, and $10 million in future noneconomic damages).

With prejudgment interest for the insurance companies’ refusal to do the right thing and pay the $4.5 million offer when they could have, the total amount Dr. Chen owed was over $28 million dollars.

Following the trial, Nick gave us the following quote about working on the trial with Haytham Faraj:

Being in trial with Haytham was an amazing experience. It reminded me of being in the military where you have somebody who you trust, who is equally skilled, and who cares more about you than he does himself. There was a juror who everybody was worried about, who ended up being the foreperson, and I saw that anytime Haytham would get up to direct or cross-examine a witness that this juror would brighten up and take notes.

Haytham is the best of the best. The way he cross-examines witnesses, his voice, his demeanor, the way his heart shows by the tone of his words, these are things you can only understand if you see and experience them. A witness who came in to destroy Ms. Laws’s economic damages, a vocational rehabilitation expert who wouldn’t answer a single question straight on cross-examination, was dismantled by Haytham in a way I have never seen.

He used the TLC method to tell a story through the witness, and at the same time, humiliated the man in a manner that had the jury shaking their head in disgust by the time cross-examination was over. Haytham told Ms. Laws’s story through lay witnesses beautifully and brought emotion into the courtroom in a way that was credible and not overselling. His cross-exams of medical and liability experts were masterful.

We would have split closing arguments had the Judge allowed us. There were a few points during the trial where, by watching the jury while Haytham was up and feeling the connection, I knew we had won the case. I could not have won this case alone. Haytham worked the case with me for months and played an equal role during trial. It was an amazing experience. We didn’t have a single argument; we worked together wonderfully. It was great fun, as scary as it was.

The Jurors Spoke

After the trial, several jurors sent Nick and Ms. Laws emails telling them how moved they were by her case and Nick’s care as her lawyer. One juror actually wrote that he never thought that he would see a lawyer care so much for client the way Nick did:

I’m so very glad that you and Mr. Rowley found each other. I’m sure there are many fine lawyers practicing today, but the extent that he and his wife Courtney have gone to in looking after you and making you part of their lives marks them as pretty exceptional people. A lot of folks have no problem helping someone professionally, but it takes a special type of person to truly take you into their hearts and make your struggles their own. How wonderful it is, that in your hour of need, you were blessed with such kind people.

One juror wrote that he noticed that when Nick and Ms. Laws broke into tears it was not when the amount of money was announced, but rather at the end of the verdict form when the vote for percentage of liability was read and the jury assigned 100 percent of the liability to Dr. Chen. Nick and Ms. Laws were both crying on each other’s shoulders. This, the juror wrote, was when he knew that he and the rest of the jury had done the right thing.

We become our most compelling and persuasive when we are completely committed to serving the needs of our clients. Ms. Laws’s father testified during the trial that Nick was “not just her lawyer, but he was her family.”

Trial Guides is proud to announce this verdict shortly after releasing the first in a collection of new audio and video presentations and lectures coming from Nick Rowley. These new presentations will focus on teaching you how to implement his system of settling and trying cases. The first of these lectures, Noneconomic Damages, covers how Nick obtains large noneconomic damages in his settlements and trials.

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