Jonathan Adelman, Waldon, Adelman, Castilla, Hiestand & Prout, Atlanta.
A veteran defense attorney said he was surprised when his firm was called to handle a half-dozen auto wreck trials last month, when the summer doldrums normally leaves courthouses quiescent and dockets thin.
“A lot of attorneys lawyers are out of town, the judges go on vacation and don’t have active trial calendars; there’s just usually not a lot happening,” said Waldon Adelman Castilla Hiestand & Prout partner Jonathan Adelman.
June was a notable exception for the firm, which tried four cases to straight defense wins. In another case, the firm’s client emerged unscathed, and a sixth trial ended with an award less than the $10,000 settlement offer the plaintiff had turned down before the trial.
While not the busiest month he’s seen, Adelman said June was “out of the ordinary. We had three trials in a week and a half.”
Adelman thinks there’s more at issue than a spate of bad drivers. He pointed a finger at ubiquitous personal injury legal advertising, healthcare providers leveraging claims for higher damages and a social media-fueled assumption that a personal injury claim is a winning lottery ticket.
“While all of this is good for law firms in the short term, it is not sustainable in the long term for society, businesses, or the legal community,” Adelman said.
Georgia Trial Lawyers Association President Laurie Speed also has seen more cases going to court, but she suspects other factors are at work.
In her experience with cases outside of the medical malpractice field, ”Insurers are under-valuing cases, so we are litigating cases that should resolve earlier,” Speed said via email. “Also, insurers are overconfident in their win rates and pushing cases to trial that should settle.”
To be sure, she said, while some cases that should settle go to trial and end with defense verdicts, “there have been quite a few that could have been settled for reasonable amounts, which have resulted in very large verdicts.”
A Busy Month
Waldon Adelman’s busy month began with a defense verdict in Clayton County, where firm partner Ashley Rice represented a woman who admitted to rear-ending another woman’s car at a red light.
There were no injuries reported at the scene, said Adelman, but on the day of the accident, the plaintiff called 411-PAIN, a heavily advertised personal injury lawyer referral service.
At trial, the plaintiff claimed more than $11,800 in medical bills for treatment, including multiple epidural anesthetics, and asked for at least $23,000 at closing.
After a two-day trial, the jury found for the defense.
In Gwinnett County, firm partner Trevor Hiestand represented the uninsured motorist carrier for a woman rear-ended by a motorist in another admitted liability case. The at-fault driver’s insurer paid its $25,000 limit, and the case went to trial with the plaintiff claiming medical bills of $88,000, including a neck surgery.
After two days and a plaintiffs closing plea for at least $400,000 in damages, the jury found for the defense.
In a Douglas County case, associate Taylor Barnett led the defense in another admitted fault rear-end collision case with about $46,000 in claimed medical damages.
The plaintiff turned down an offer to settle for $8,525, and the jury took 45 minutes to find for the defense. Barnett will be filing for attorney fees under Georgia’s offer of judgment statute. It states that a party that declines a settlement offer and then loses at trial by at least 25 percent more than the rejected offer may have to pay the winning party’s attorney fees from the date of the offer.
In another case, a DeKalb County plaintiff who was rear-ended and claimed about $25,000 in damages turned down $10,000 to settle. After a two-day trial with associate Ben Harbin leading the defense, the plaintiffs team asked for $46,000 in closing; the jury awarded $9,499.
Adelman led the defense for a man who turned in front of another driver in Cobb County.
“It was clear fault case,” he said. The plaintiff did not complain at the scene, he said, but began experiencing pain about three hours later and ultimately underwent shoulder surgery and claimed $47,000 in medical bills.
The plaintiffs declined a $10,000 settlement offer, he said. In closing, their lawyer asked for $300,000; the jury found for the defense.
Adelman’s firm also represented the underinsured motorist carrier in a case “with exposure, but the verdict did not get past the liability limits,” he said.
Adelman said that, despite increasingly sophisticated safety features on cars and trucks, he’s seeing an increasing number of motor vehicle cases being filed and going to trial in Georgia.
Adelman cited three likely reasons for the uptick.
The first is advertising, he said.
“Through the vehicle of unbridled advertising, parts of the public have come to believe that an automobile accident is synonymous with a payday,” he said.
Second, he said, is an “increasing number of health care clinics which focus on personal injury claimants and provide extensive treatment, if not overtreatment, on either a lien basis or through medical funding companies.”
Third, he said, is “social media which promotes the idea that personal injury cases are never lost, and every verdict or settlement is enormous.”
GTLA’s Speed said she and her colleagues have repeatedly been frustrated by insurers who either offer meager settlements to injured plaintiffs or don’t respond at all. In one case, an initial demand for a woman with $45,000 in medical bills was ignored; at trial, she won a seven-figure award.
Speed said a fellow GTLA officer reported that “judges are moving trial calendars more quickly and scheduling more civil trial calendars” and that counties that previously only had civil calendars every two or three months are scheduling monthly calendars now, so cases are being tried faster.
Adelman’s critiques, said Speed, reflect an insurance industry “agenda” geared to “cast aspersions on the plaintiffs bar and to blame anything and everything on the actions of advertisers, medical lien healthcare clinics and others who are perceived as easy PR targets, rather than the tortfeasor.”