Specializing in auto accident trauma mental health care, and having recently published a book on the topic, I was interested to learn how a successful personal injury attorney views topics of trauma, traumatic brain injuries, and the personal injury legal process.
On January 25, 2021, I spoke with one of the top personal injury attorneys in the United States about issues of law and trauma. Mr. Ven Johnson has over 35 years of experience as a personal injury attorney. He started out his practice as a defense attorney mentored by a brilliant trial lawyer in Michigan. Mr. Johnson now runs his own law practice, Johnson Law, and is involved in many high-profile cases, including the Midland Dam crisis.
Attorneys and Vicarious Traumatization
I first asked Mr. Johnson how he views the impact of working with trauma survivors for attorneys and how attorneys cope with vicarious traumatization. Mr. Johnson said that trauma affects all aspects of the work with clients and impacts every communication. He talked about how lawyers are attorneys and counselors; however, many fall short on the counseling side of the equation.
He emphasized that attorneys need to learn to be better listeners in order to hear the trauma stories and how trauma has impacted their client. They need to be better empathic listeners in order to understand their traumatized client. “Attorneys need more training in dealing with trauma,” Mr. Johnson stated.
Early in Mr. Johnson’s career, he found that severe victimization cases were sometimes overwhelming and required emotional distancing to cope. He has since learned how to better manage his emotional reactions to situations of extreme victimization, injury, and sometimes death.
Mr. Johnson talked about how it is a well-known fact that many attorneys use and abuse alcohol and drugs to cope with the high level of stress associated with trauma cases. The incidence of alcohol and drug abuse is high for attorneys who deal with trauma.
Mr. Johnson believes attorneys need a better understanding of trauma and how their work can negatively impact them. As a strong advocate for mental health care, he values and understands the benefits of therapy.
I asked if the legal profession as a whole has an emphasis on this aspect of attorney well-being. He indicated some professional legal organizations have AA meetings which are available during conferences. He feels more could be done by his professional organizations in regard to promoting programs for attorney mental health issues.
When Should a Car Accident Survivor Contact an Attorney?
For a number of reasons, Mr. Johnson advised that if you have been injured in a car accident, you should likely contact an attorney. According to Johnson, there are a number of reasons to do so. Most importantly, victims and their family members are hungry for information to protect their rights.
An attorney can inform them of the resources available, explain the insurance practices and legal processes, and support them in getting needed care. For example, victims are often unable to work because of their injuries and they need to be informed about insurance coverage for lost wages. They also may benefit from the general and case-specific information that the attorney can provide.
When Should an Attorney File a Lawsuit?
Mr. Johnson indicated his opinion is in the minority as he believes that if a case has merit, a lawsuit should be filed immediately. Many lawyers do not want to do this because of the initial costs involved. Johnson’s own view is that by filing a lawsuit, he is in a better position to preserve evidence that might otherwise be lost. Once a case is filed, the attorney has the power to issue subpoenas for records and can obtain what is referred to as an Exparte Order.
This order can be used to prevent vehicles involved in the accident from being sold or scraped, for example. It is important to preserve any evidence so it can be forensically examined and provide legal proof at trial, preventing what is termed "spoliation of evidence." While expensive for the attorney, Mr. Johnson indicated that insurance companies often will not pay large sums of money on a case without having all of the evidence.
How Long Does a Lawsuit Take to Be Resolved?
Mr. Johnson suggested the typical auto accident lawsuit takes one and a half years to be resolved. Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, there are currently no trials in places like Oakland County, Michigan. This is to the advantage of the insurance companies, he says, as it is the risk of a trial that triggers settlement. He says that bigger cases will typically not settle for high dollar amounts without a trial date being set.
What is the Biggest Mistake a Client Can Make?
Mr. Johnson noted that in his view, the biggest mistake clients make is to have too much contact with the insurance company. It’s important to remember, he says, that the insurance company is not your friend when you are injured, and they want to get you cut off from services and benefits as quickly as possible. For example, in complex polytrauma cases, insurance companies will often assign case managers who present themselves as working for the client’s best interest, but in fact, they are often working for the insurance companies’ best interest.
The second biggest mistake clients make is not getting enough treatment when they are injured, he says. People not getting the care they need is a problem that Johnson sees in many cases. He advises his clients to get any needed care and not fake being well when they are in fact injured.
When it comes to clients getting emotional care for injuries, this is often a missing piece. It is challenging for him to help clients overcome concerns about the stigma of receiving mental health care. Mr. Johnson encourages traumatized clients to get the mental health care that they need.
Often, clients are dealing with chronic pain, anxieties about their physical conditions, loss of occupational roles, and family strain due to restrictions and limitations. These factors can have a significant mental health impact. He will often hear clients say they do not want to be perceived as a "whiner" if they complain of their problems. He often sees this as the exact opposite of the societal stereotype of victims faking injuries.
Mr. Johnson explained that attorneys have to work with their clients to overcome fears of stigmatization for receiving therapy. Many clients have never received mental health care and do not understand the benefits. He says there is a huge need for the education and support that an informed attorney can provide. Mr. Johnson emphasized that when a client is dealing with chronic pain, every aspect of their lives is impacted, sometimes resulting in severe depression and changes in brain chemistry that negatively impact their ability to engage with others.
The Importance of a Neuropsychological Evaluation
Mr. Johnson indicated that he is a huge advocate for clients receiving neuropsychological evaluations because of the detailed information it provides that will better help him to understand them and their conditions. He talked about how often people will deny they have brain injuries when they actually do.
As an attorney, Mr. Johnson wants to know as much as he can about brain functioning. He says that he looks at the Beck Depression scores, if available, and other data that a neuropsychological evaluation can provide. If there are indications of a traumatic brain injury, he wants to review all pre-injury records such as school performance, and all pre-injury medical records in order to be as informed and prepared as possible to assist his client.
What If Clients with Traumatic Brain Injuries Don’t Remember Prior Injuries?
Mr. Johnson explained that in the real world, people often forget about prior injuries. It doesn’t mean they are intentionally attempting to conceal something. A pre-accident injury can actually make the person more susceptible to later injuries, particularly involving brain injuries. He indicated that many attorneys do not understand brain injuries or the issue of exacerbation of pre-accident injuries.
Again, as much data as possible can help to tease out issues of apportionment and causality based on the evidence, and at trial, the jury is faced with having to make these tough determinations. If a jury is unable to make the determination, according to law, they must award the whole.