It started as an ordinary April weekday morning. A wood chip truck was heading south on Interstate 5 freeway, nearing Cottage Grove. I was driving to work in my little Toyota Celica, heading north towards Eugene. Neither one of us knew it then, but the two of us were about to meet. I would end up permanently blind as a result of that meeting.
The truck driver suddenly lost control of his rig, went across the southbound lanes, through the dividing median, and headed into the northbound lanes, right toward me.
In addition to being an auto mechanic, I am an amateur race car driver, and those racing skills probably saved my life. I had been taught in racing that if I was going to be in a crash to try and let the passenger side of the car take the impact. As the moving tractor-trailer completely blocked both northbound lanes, I steered in an attempt to minimize the impact of the collision. Both of us were going about 60 mph. With only a split second to act, I brought my car sideways and the passenger side of the car took the brunt of the crash. That crash knocked me unconscious. I later learned that the fi rst of the truck’s two trailers then spun my car around and the second trailer hit the rear of my car and spun it around again.
Dealing with Change
I lived, but almost nothing was the same after that April morning in 2002. The bones in my face were shattered and my back was broken. After multiple surgeries, the doctors were able to salvage my face, but not my eyes. At 42 years of age, I needed to learn to do everything differently: to walk down the street using a white cane, to read Braille, to use a computer with adaptive technology, to read a watch, to take a phone message, to dress myself in the morning. Some things I took for granted I will never get to do as a sightless person, such as hopping in the car to drive to work or to go buy an ice cream cone.
I lost my freedom and my independence in a split second. Now I have to rely on many other people to do for me what I used to be able to do myself.
One thing that didn’t change was the faith and support of my wife, Della. I appreciate her more every day.
Another thing that didn’t change was who I am inside. I still wanted to work as an auto mechanic and repair shop manager. However, I found that employers were not interested in having a blind man work on cars or manage their shops. With life-changing injuries, mountains of medical bills, no job and no income, I was faced with the challenge of putting my life back together.
The Legal Process
A member of our extended family worked in a Eugene law offi ce, and she referred me to an attorney in another law firm, Don Corson. We’ve been working with Don and his colleagues and staff for over six years now, through three major cases arising from that one April morning collision.
Don met with us at our house, shortly after I was discharged from the hospital. Over the following months, he met with my mobility trainer, met with the people training me to use computer voice software, conferred with staff at the Oregon Commission for the Blind, accompanied me on my training sessions while I learned how to walk without vision, and read books about blindness. At the same time, he was investigating the trucking collision and preparing and fi ling the lawsuit against the negligent truck driver and trucking company.
He wanted to see what I had to go through in person, so he could better understand what a major life change I was experiencing.
The first court case was against the trucking company and its driver. In the course of that case, we learned that the trucking company’s insurance broker had not purchased as much liability insurance as the trucking company requested. We eventually obtained the limited amount of liability insurance that the broker had obtained for the trucking company, and the trucking company agreed to prosecute an action against its broker, with proceeds going to Della and me for my care and rehabilitation.
Out of the blue, we were hit with a federal lawsuit from my own health insurance company. Not only did the health insurer want back all of the benefi ts it had already paid, it wanted to stop paying for future benefi ts until we had used up all of the settlement proceeds to pay for medical care. And it wanted us to keep on paying our full health insurance premiums even while it wanted to not pay us any benefits. Sadly, we learned that this is a common position for health insurance companies to take.
Don and others working with him fought this second lawsuit, even while we were gearing up for the third. The health insurance case was resolved after a settlement conference with a U.S. District Court judge, with both sides giving up something to reach a compromise.
The third court case was the most complicated and time-consuming. The trucking company brought an action against its insurance broker for the broker’s failure to obtain the amount of liability insurance coverage that the trucking company had requested.
Don and others prosecuted the trucking company’s case against the insurance broker. I learned from Don that a month before that trial, the court granted a summary judgment against the trucking company. The trucking company appealed, eventually prevailing in the Oregon Court of Appeals. The Oregon Supreme Court denied review, allowing the Court of Appeals ruling to stand. Don tells me our case provides a template for injured persons to bring claims against insurance companies and agents in the future.
The case against the broker eventually settled through mediation. It’s now been more than six years since that fateful April morning. We’ve been through three court cases. As I write this article, we’re waiting for the insurance companies to send the fi nal paperwork, and the case will at last be fully concluded.
A New Life
The legal work has given Della and me fi nancial security. The settlements were structured, so we receive a regular monthly income. We were able to purchase our own automobile repair shop in Cottage Grove, D&D Automotive, Inc. I’m back to work.
At our shop, I am able to do some of the mechanic work like I used to do before the collision. But now I have to rely on a full time mechanic to do most of the work in the shop, as I mainly do the management part. I have also helped a deaf young man learn how to be a mechanic and have over the phone mentored many other blind people that want to go back to work.
There is no way in the world that Della and I could have afforded to hire an attorney by the hour to protect our interests. It has taken years of effort and untold hours of legal work to get us through these three cases successfully. We have fought and won against four law fi rms and three insurance companies. The average working person simply would never have the fi nancial resources to take on even one of those battles. Those cases were expensive, diffi cult, and time-consuming. Only because Don Corson was willing to work on a contingent fee basis were we able to obtain the kind of legal representation we needed.
Because of the ability to enforce our rights in the courts, I’ve been able to enjoy a much better life. After my blindness, I continue to do some of the things I enjoyed doing before — such as parasailing, horseback riding, and building and driving race cars (with the help of a passenger or two-way radios), and I’ve participated in demolition derbies. Someday, I hope to set a new world land speed record for a blind person, driving on the Salt Flats in excess of 200 mph.
Without the ability to have an attorney help us in the challenges I faced, I like to think that I would have the same spirit and attitude that I have today. But having someone fi ght for you makes all of the difference in how things work out, and I’m thankful that we have a system in Oregon that allows a typical citizen to have a fair fi ght against even the major insurance companies and corporations and their teams of lawyers.