I’ve written a couple of columns in the past year complaining about the slap on the wrist many criminals have received in Surry County courts.
How those who violate the rights of others don’t get the punishment they deserve and are set free to violate others. Turns out the criminal court isn’t the only place where such injustice lies.
A dear friend was in court last week for a civil trial. We’ll call her Nita and her husband Morrie.
Nita was hurt in a car accident a few years ago, and all this time later the couple was still fighting with a certain insurance company on paying bills.
Nita works in health care and was on her way to work one day when a man looked right at her approaching truck and then decided he would risk turning left in front of her.
She hit her brakes hard, the anti-lock brakes doing their job to help her keep from losing control. She swerved to the left and avoided a T-bone collision.
She struck the rear of the car, skidded and somehow managed to fight to keep her truck in the roadway, even as the right front wheel broke off and bounced along the asphalt.
When a trooper asked the other driver what happened, the man first said he never saw Nita. Then he changed his story and said she was speeding. By the trooper’s estimate, she was likely only driving 45 mph in a 55 zone.
In the minutes after the crash, Nita used her contacts list on her cell phone to reach out to family members — only to have no memory of these conversations later. A neighbor who knew Nita’s mother stopped to check on her health. Nita didn’t know who the woman was.
Even though she didn’t hit her head, the whiplash motion of the accident gave Nita a concussion. She would also later realize that she had a constant ringing in one ear that wouldn’t go away.
Later there would be subtle changes that Morrie and I noticed. Wearing shades on cloudy days because of light sensitivity. A lover of music, she would occasionally turn the radio down or turn it off altogether because she couldn’t handle the sound. She became less patient, more irritable and depressed (all symptoms of post-concussion syndrome).
An ear specialist told Nita that the whiplash motion of her head could have caused nerve damage in the ear, causing the tinnitus. I happened to be present for that doctor visit and hear the words myself.
When it came time to go to court, the ear doctor refused to testify, saying he couldn’t be sure how the nerve damage happened.
The truck was totaled. It wasn’t a cheap truck because it was four-wheel drive. Unlike many occupations that can stay home in bad weather, health care professionals cannot miss a day of work. Not only does Nita work in medicine, but Morrie is a paramedic who is credited with saving eight lives in the field. Staying home in the snow is not an option.
The insurance company offered only $12,500 to replace the truck. I helped them by going on dealership websites and visiting Carmax in the hopes of finding a similar Ford for that price. The cheapest I saw was more than $19,000 — and that one had maybe 80,000 miles already. Is that fair value?
Nita had to see several doctors because of the wreck and built up a pile of bills. All of which should have been paid by the offending party’s insurance. That company has yet to pay a penny.
She also missed much time from work and is owed about $2,500 in lost wages — again unpaid.
When the couple first met with the insurance company, the initial offer was $800. Later, after many, many months of debate, the amount went to $4,000. Two weeks ago under threat of lawsuit, the offer rose to $7,500.
That was barely the difference between what was offered on the truck and what a replacement would have cost. That didn’t cover the medical bills, lost wages and pain and suffering.
I suggested $80,000 as a reasonable starting point in negotiating. I wasn’t being greedy. She had a strong case for that sum.
Nita worried about going to court. Perhaps she could just take the paltry $7,500 and make do on the rest of the bills.
Nonsense, I said. Here is a woman born and raised in Surry County. A couple who has spent their entire careers helping others in need. And the idiot who caused the accident was a Libyan with a name the same as a certain Middle East terrorist, I said. How could you possibly lose to a jury of your peers?
I stand corrected.
At the end of the week, Nita and Morrie came away with $500 total. Yes, the jury sided with the couple and found the Libyan at fault, but decreed that the insurance company would only have to pay $500.
Sure, the insurance company can bring in some well-paid medical experts to refute whether or not Nita had a concussion or tinnitus, but no one can refute that Nita isn’t supposed to pay for getting checked out. And Nita isn’t supposed to lose wages because she couldn’t work. And people are entitled to get some compensation for losing a truck, suffering pain and agony, and spending years and years fighting with insurance.
A jury of her peers gave $500. And the man who caused the wreck drove away from court in his Mercedes.
Where is the justice in this?
Jeff is the associate editor and can be reached at 415-4692.