By: Bell Law Firm
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War Stories: Cris Nelson and a Lesson in Creativity
Cases like Cris Nelson’s stick with me because of the relationships. The creativity and tenacity these cases demand makes them very different in some ways. However, the common thread in medical malpractice cases we represent is that you must be flexible as the attorney to fully convey a very human story so the jury can see the truth.
No case is the same, no client is the same and no jury is the same. However, every case has the same goal: to receive a full, fair and just outcome for each client. While a common metaphor, trial is very much like a battlefield. It’s a contest between highly motivated adversaries with distinct, conflicting goals. It takes adaptability, aggression, compassion and flexibility to accel.
Cris Nelson was a wonderful gentleman from rural Georgia. He was a short-haul truck driver married to his high school sweetheart, with two grown boys. Truck drivers have to get regular physicals, so he went to a local Emory clinic for his. There, they took his weight, height, and checked his blood pressure. All very routine.
Once in an exam room, a young medical assistant came in to take his blood. Cris was sitting up on the table with his feet hanging off, and the assistant began to draw blood out of his arm. She filled three vials, and then turned away from Cris to put the vials in a prepared container to ship off to the lab. In the moment she turned away, Cris lost consciousness and fell head-first off the table, breaking his nose and neck when his head hit the floor.
The force of impact squeezed the spinal cord at his neck area and caused cord compression and paralysis. Cris was taken out of the clinic on a stretcher a quadriplegic. He has since recovered some of his movement in his arms but will remain paraplegic for the rest of his life.
Two weeks before trial, Emory brought in a new defense firm with a reputation for aggressive, in-court defense tactics. The firm admitted liability on behalf of their client. It’s hard to overstate how unusual it is in medical malpractice cases for the defendant to admit anything (particularly liability), and to admit as a matter of law that they violated the standard of care and have caused harm to a patient.
So, why did they do it?
This trial tactic was done in an effort to try and keep out certain evidence that would likely inflame or upset the jury. For example, the lack of training that the medical assistant had received to draw blood. In this case, the standard of care was explicitly violated when the assistant drew blood from a patient sitting up on a table.
Standard of care dictates that the health professional put you in a chair with arms when drawing blood or lay you down on the exam table. It’s extremely dangerous to draw blood from someone sitting up on a table because they could pass out. Even if you’ve given blood your entire life without issue, it can happen unexpectedly.
Once liability had been admitted, our side of the case became all about determining the damages. What are the damages that were caused? For Cris Nelson, they were dramatic and profound, but they were contested. The defense made arguments and suggestions that Cris was faking some of his disability and that he could really do more than he was letting on.
It was difficult to hear those arguments because we got very close to Cris. That’s common in these cases – you really get to know the client at a very profound level. It hurt to hear him accused of being dishonest, but that was a large component of the defense. So, Cris’s condition became a focal point of the case. He was in a wheelchair because his walking was so impaired but did have some ability to walk in a limited way using arm braces.
Key Lesson: Creativity
Throughout the trial, the jury heard hearing lawyers fighting over how much Cris could or couldn’t walk. We realized the jury needed to see for themselves, so we turned to Cris and asked if he would be comfortable walking in front of the jury to help them understand his condition.
Cris agreed. He rolled his wheelchair to the far end of the courtroom and he proceeded to unstrap the constraint that held his feet in place, using his hands to pull his right leg and then his left leg off to the side. He got to his feet, and he put one foot in front of the other, and then the second foot, and very slowly and carefully he moved across the courtroom to the jury.
The jury could very clearly see the struggle for Cris to move his legs, how his feet were misaligned, and how his balance was unsteady. This in-court demonstration was impactful and helpful to the jury to truly understand what his condition was like. It also undercut the credibility of the defense who had tried to falsely suggest Cris was more capable of walking than we let on.
Perhaps the most impactful part of the case occurred when Cris finally made it to the jury box. He explained to the jurors:
I can normally walk a little better than this, but in the mornings, I have to spend about forty-five minutes on a mat with my wife stretching out and getting my muscles loose. After I do that, I can move a little better than this, but I didn’t want you to get the wrong idea that this is how I always walk. Because I can usually do a little better than this, but I didn’t have time to stretch this morning.
The credibility and honesty Cris exuded was profound. The jury clearly cared about him and his condition and returned a substantial $15M verdict for Cris in an admitted liability case.
War Stories is a three-part blog series and starts with Connie Lockhart’s story here.