Ian Kleinman and Bennett Lessmann Jr. of Kleinman & Lessmann in Boca Raton secured a more than $1.1 million settlement agreement with Illinois-based State Farm Mutual Insurance Co. over a collision that left their client in need of four surgeries.
“This was very close to … being a fatal crash,” said Lessmann, whose client, Jacqueline B. Walters, was driving a scooter westbound on Cheney Highway in Brevard County on the morning of June 21, 2014.
Though Walters had the right of way, a Honda Accord abruptly pulled out in front of her in an attempt to turn left into a shopping plaza. The Honda driver was elderly Charlotte L. Iwan, who has since died of unrelated, natural causes.
Walters tried to avoid the crash, but hit the hood of the car and was “launched off of her scooter and landed hard on her left side in the highway,” according to Lessmann.
Walters, who was in her 60s at the time of the crash, had only recently married her husband, John.
“Her husband showed up at the scene of the accident and it was a tragic thing for him to see,” Lessmann said.
The accident brought an abrupt end to what had been almost a year of newlywed bliss.
“They had a lot of plans to do things together,” Lessmann said. “[Walters] felt really responsible for the change in their marriage.”
The couple were avid travelers. But in the wake of the accident, Walters’ husband instead had to switch gears and take on a caregiving role for her ”constellation of injuries.”
Damage to her left wrist, neck, mid- and lower back, and left shoulder led to four separate surgeries. In addition to several injections in her neck and left shoulder, Walters had a carpal tunnel release performed on her left wrist, a discectomy infusion to remove herniated discs in her neck, and two left-shoulder surgeries.
Walters had health insurance, but the procedures were costly and not completely covered.
“From the beginning, she was never out for blood or anything like that. She just wanted to be compensated for what she had been through, and she really just wanted her medical bills paid,” Lessmann said.
Walters faced pushback from her insurer, Texas-based Garrison Property and Casualty Insurance Co., and Iwan’s insurer, State Farm.
Garrison eventually agreed to a $2,500 settlement in mediation on April 30, 2018.
But State Farm were difficult to convince, and by April 2017, Walters felt she had no choice but to file a suit.
In order to bring the case against State Farm, Kleinman and Lessmann had to secure a representative for Iwan’s estate, Boynton Beach attorney Jeff Tomberg.
“Our strategy was to litigate the case extremely aggressively, so we tried to move it as quickly as possible onto a docket. We always tried to keep the deadlines firm, and at every step, we were making sure that we were leading to trial,” Lessmann said.
Without the threat of trial, Lessmann said he didn’t see State Farm “ever seeing the value of the case.”
In addition to denying responsibility, the defense also claimed that Walters’ failure to properly “mitigate” her health care costs resulted in charges that were larger than necessary.
Kleinman and Lessmann were confident that a jury would empathize with the couple, but struggled to demonstrate to State Farm the ways Walters’ life was altered by the accident.
“In this area of the law, getting an insurance company to see how these injuries affect someone and what that means on their day-to-day living and their relationships, that’s the biggest hurdle,” Lessmann said.
Before the crash, Walters’ grandchildren described her as the “Energizer Bunny,” but the string of surgeries zapped her energy.
The couple were also independent Baptist missionaries who made annual trips to Alaska, where they were building a new church. Before the accident, they had planned to move there permanently.
“That was obviously put on hold because the weather and the lifestyle in Alaska is a lot different from down here. I know that that for her was a big blow,” Lessmann said.
Another sticking point was getting the defense to see that Walters’ injuries were not simply pre-existing conditions that had been aggravated, a common problem for personal injury lawyers with elderly or middle-aged clients.
“Just because someone has age-appropriate findings on a diagnostic study does not mean that they cannot be injured severely in a motor scooter [vs.] motor vehicle crash,” Lessmann said.
Lucky for the plaintiff, a compulsory medical examination miraculously confirmed everything Walters’ treating providers had said.
“It’s extremely rare for a compulsory medical examination doctor to find a permanent impairment rating related to the crash,” Lessmann said. “In this case that’s exactly what happened.”
After that, State Farm’s defense team lost its clout.
“The case purely became an economic business decision for State Farm,” Lessmann said.
State Farm and Tomberg were represented by Lawrence I. Hauser of Hassell-Legal in Daytona Beach, who did not respond to requests for comment before deadline.
On the eve of trial, State Farm settled, agreeing to the same offer Walters had suggested when the litigation began.
According to Lessmann, his partner Kleinman’s experience as a former insurance defense lawyer also proved “invaluable” over the nearly five years spent litigating the case.
Lessmann calls it vindication.
“The other side, who never once apologized, never once seemed contrite about anything, finally recognized that what they did to her was wrong,” he said. “And that they took it seriously.”
Case: Jacqueline and John Walters v. The Estate of Charlotte Iwan
Case No.: 05-2017-CA-022923 DIV R
Description: Personal injury involving a vehicle and scooter collision
Filing date: April 7, 2017
Settlement date: June 15, 2018
Judge: Brevard County Circuit Judge Tonya Rainwater
Plaintiff attorneys: Ian L. Kleinman and Bennett M. Lessmann Jr., Law Offices of Kleinman & Lessmann, Boca Raton
Defense attorneys: Lawrence I. Hauser, Hassell-Legal, Daytona Beach
Settlement amount: $1,102,500