It Pays to Dig Deeper: Investigating Single-Car Crashes

I bet that 90% of lawyers would have made a $9 million mistake on this case. Before I explain, let me walk you through the scenario.

Imagine that you’re a personal injury lawyer, and someone calls you up and tells you this story: “I live in California, but I was on a car trip in Mexico to visit my mother. My buddy was driving my car and I was in the passenger seat. Suddenly, he lost control of the car, which rolled. I broke my neck, got a brain injury that leaves me depressed, out of control of my moods, and makes it really hard for me to work, probably impossible. In fact, my family has to take care of me now. I mean, I can eat and get around and all that, but I’m always getting confused. I’m 51 years old! I had to get skin grafts because of all the damage to my head and arms. It was really bad. The medical bills are a few hundred thousand dollars already. Can you help me?”

Most lawyers in this situation would advise suing his friend who was driving, but that’ll probably only yield $25,000 or so, depending on the insurance policy limit. Since he has a few hundred thousand in medical bills, $25,000 won’t help much. What to do? Here’s the common thinking: It’s a single-car rollover. Nobody is to blame, except maybe the driver. Accidents happen. Sometimes it’s nobody’s fault.

Well, this was a real case. And the plaintiff, Mario Olguin, was lucky, because his lawyers looked past the obvious. They asked questions. Most would have missed the real cause of the accident, which makes the lawyer who got this case and investigated it correctly, Daniel O’Leary, all the more impressive. It’s a lawyer’s duty, of course, to fully explore all the possibilities, to strive to overlook no detail. But, with depressing regularity, that does not happen. In this case, it did. Good work.

Before you read any further, think about what you would have asked, if you had been the attorney.

Here’s the question: “WHY did your friend lose control of the vehicle?” It’s a simple question, but the payoff is in the followup.

If you asked this question, and actually examined the vehicle with an engineer, you’d have found out that a tire blew, which was the cause of the rollover and the injury. If you’d followed this up, you’d have found out that Mr. Olguin had bought four used and mismatched tires eleven days earlier from a wrecking yard. And if you’d questioned beyond that, you’d have found that he brought the tires to Twin’s Tires and Wheels (TTW) to get them installed. TTW installed them, even though one of them was a 13-year-old Michelin with visible signs of cracking.

Mr. Olguin’s lawyers sued Michelin, the wrecking yard, and TTW. Michelin said, reasonably enough, that they recommend tires be removed from service after 7 years, and that in fact, the tire had been removed from service; it was in a wrecking yard, after all. So Michelin settled (for a confidential amount). The wrecking yard, on the other hand, clearly did wrong. They shouldn’t have sold a 13-year-old tire with visible cracking. They settled for $800,000.

But the real negligent party here was TTW. Mr. Olguin didn’t put the tires on the car by himself; he sought professionals to do the job for him. He put his safety in their hands, and they installed a tire that they should have known was dangerous. Then they refused to settle for a reasonable amount, so the case went to a jury, which found TTW to be 100% at fault, and returned a verdict of $7.9 million.

That’s probably not the end of the story. TTW will try to appeal. They may not have enough insurance to cover it. The chances of Mr. Olguin actually getting the full $7.9 million are low, but he will still get a whole lot more money than he’d have gotten with lesser lawyers.

Congratulations to Mr. Olguin and his lawyers, Mr. O’Leary and Mr. Simon. All three are vindicated for pressing hard and not giving up. Many lawyers would not have had the courage to pursue this case all the way through trial, and their thorough investigation and their perseverance exemplify what trial attorneys should be doing for all clients.

The moral of the story: where injuries are severe, don’t be satisfied with a quick look and hastily-drawn conclusion. Dig deep. And then go tell a jury your story.