With so few lawyers going to trial, Trial Guides likes to feature stories about lawyers who get great outcomes for their clients by turning down unreasonable offers and going to trial. We often post stories about our authors’ large verdicts, but it’s also great to hear how lawyers achieved hard-fought victories in more common cases—particularly those with low offers and substantial chances of losing.
Today, we wanted to focus on a case involving Rod Ritner and Dominic Pechota, partners at Nick Rowley’s firm in Iowa, Trial Lawyers for Justice. The case involved an underinsured motorist claim where the client’s insurer gave a $15,000 offer on a $100,000 policy in a conservative county. Rather than push their client to accept a low offer, the team took the case to trial using Rowley’s method in Trial by Human and obtained a $1,188,735 jury verdict—a new record in the county.
We like to understand what is working for lawyers both in settlements and in trials, so we asked Rod and Dominic to share a few thoughts on how their team obtained this substantial, record-setting verdict for their client.
Rod Ritner and Dominic Pechota on how their team obtained a record-setting verdict for their client:
Iowa is an insurance company state. Several insurance companies have headquarters there and the industry lobbies the state legislature heavily. Consequently, Iowa laws favor insurers at every step and make it nearly impossible for their insured to get a fair outcome.
Insurance defense attorneys have openly admitted that insurers in Iowa won’t settle cases unless they get a discount, regardless of the facts. This is because the insurance companies in Iowa see no risk in taking even an indefensible case to trial. They never seriously consider first party bad faith, and the companies never have to pay any attorney’s fees, significant costs, or interest for delaying payments to their policy-holders. On the other hand, by delaying payment as long as they can, the insurers continue to earn interest on money that rightfully belongs to their insured and they frequently coerce their policy-holders into accepting far less than what is rightfully due to them as compensation for their losses.
Unfortunately, the economics of the situation forces far too many plaintiff’s attorneys to have to recommend settling even the most egregious cases for less than policy limits. As we all know, the costs of going to trial all too often make it a bad business decision to take many cases to trial. Even with a winning case, both the attorney and the client can end up losing money. Our recent trial was a perfect example. However, sometimes we just have to try cases in the hopes of making the insurance companies start to keep the promises they made when they were collecting premiums.
Our jury heard how our client had your typical motorcycle liability policy with Farm Bureau, supposedly one of Iowa’s “better” insurance companies. His policy included $100,000 in uninsured/underinsured coverage, although the jury was not allowed to know the amount of coverage.
When the client was riding his motorcycle northbound on a small street, he turned left at an uncontrolled intersection. He was being followed by a driver, who saw him riding all the way until he was “well into his turn,” had completely crossed the center-line, and was going across the opposing traffic’s lane. Unfortunately, that driver then looked away so she did not see the actual collision.
Our client was struck hard on the right side of his motorcycle, sending him out of control and into a stop sign. He was thrown from his motorcycle and knocked unconscious. He does not remember seeing a car strike him—whether this is due to amnesia or because he got blind-sided remains unclear.
The defendant said she was traveling southbound when she saw our client drive very fast and cut across her, trying to “beat her” through the intersection. She claimed that he was going too fast for her to stop or avoid the collision. She was the only witness to the actual collision.
It was her testimony that Farm Bureau stuck to, denying our client’s claim and arguing that our client was at least 51 percent at fault. This is important, because Iowa is a modified contributory fault state and our client wouldn’t be entitled to any recovery so long as he was more than 50 percent at fault for the collision. However, the defendant told at least a couple versions of her story at different times as she was confronted with facts that proved her prior versions false. Yet this did not dissuade Farm Bureau one iota from continuing to deny our client the benefits for which he had paid.
Our client spent thirty-four days in the hospital. After discharge, he only saw doctors three or four times. This was because he didn’t have health insurance or the money to pay for the future care the doctors had laid out for him. He also didn’t take any pain medication other than Advil, mostly because he’s one tough son of a gun. He still rides a motorcycle, plays the guitar, paints, and cuts hair. But he can’t lift weights anymore, or even do sit-ups, because it hurts and he sometimes gets nosebleeds when he strains. Although he’s back to doing almost all the same things he did before the collision, they are less enjoyable and harder to do.
The toughest part of trying this case was the fact that our chief of police, a very nice guy, did the initial accident investigation and felt that the collision was our client’s fault. Farm Bureau hung their hat on his opinion from beginning to end. They also claim his opinion is what “proves” they didn’t commit bad faith, regardless of the actual facts. He was obviously going to be a very important witness at trial and one we had to try and figure out a way for the jury to still trust and like, while also feeling empowered to disagree with him. Fortunately we were successful; the jury found the defendant 100 percent at fault for the collision.
The way we handled the chief of police started in voir dire. We asked all the potential jurors if they would be comfortable making the decision as to who was at fault for a collision none of them saw, and where there were many “snippets” of information they would have to put together. We had a very nice long conversation about the subject and we got every juror involved. Basically, all the jurors concluded with some version of the fact that they would be willing to make a decision, but that they’d want as much information as possible given to them before they would make their decision. We then made the point repeatedly in trial with each witness, including the police chief, that each witness only gave the jury some of the “snippets” and that they were the ones in the best position to determine what made the most sense. We stressed that the beauty and strength of the jury system is that the collective intelligence of a group of concerned people is far more accurate and trustworthy than the opinion of any one person, regardless of who that person might be, including a judge or a police chief.
The jury obviously felt empowered to do the right thing and our client was vindicated. The jury gave him the $188,000 in medical bills we presented; $700,000 for past physical pain, suffering, and loss of full function of his body; and $300,000 in past mental pain, suffering, and loss of enjoyment of life. Although our client only got his $100,000 policy limit, he won. He now knows his fellow citizens don’t blame him for the accident and his insurer finally had to pay the full policy limit for which he’d paid his premiums.
Nick Rowley’s book, Trial by Human, provided us with the way to obtain this great outcome. The focus of our trial used the method throughout, starting in voir dire when the jurors talked about their own experiences with motorcycles, to their role as ultimate arbiters for discovering the truth, to empowering them as a single collective intelligence to use their common sense, through the witnesses (members of their own community), and by finally leaving it up to them to determine both the method and value of what was taken from our client (who we showed was a simple man with simple desires). It was all about making it just people caring about their neighbor.
First party bad faith technically exists in Iowa, but is so incredibly limited that insurance companies place no value on the risk of it occurring. That’s why we’re going to try and show them they need to change their attitude: that the risk is real and it is in their interest to look at the facts in good faith. We need to do something to help Iowa’s policyholders to get what they’ve paid for: money in their time of need and peace of mind—rather than having their own insurance company just make a bad situation worse.
Click below and discover how you can apply the Trial by Human method in your next case today: