It was a rainy December day when our client’s friend offered to drive him home. The Christmas season had just ended, and New Year’s day was around the corner. It was that time of year when nobody is working, and nothing gets done. On that fateful day, the road crew responsible for maintaining the Trans-Canada highway just outside of Sudbury was short-staffed. This staffing shortfall had devastating consequences for our client and his family.A flash freeze hit the area. The wet roads turned into sheer ice. The short-staffed road crew failed to properly salt the roads. The Trans-Canada Highway became the Trans-Canada skating rink. The car in which our client was travelling lost control and hurtled head-first into oncoming traffic. Our client sustained a catastrophic, life-altering brain injury. He will never fully recover. He was 18 years old.
Fast forward two years, and we obtained for our client, three separate settlements totalling, $11.7-million. It was the largest ever settlement paid by the Government of Ontario for the failure to salt a roadway. And it happened just minutes outside of Sudbury.
There are two reasons that this case is worth noting: the record-setting payment, and the time in which it was achieved.
So, what are the ingredients that you need for such a large settlement? Two of them (a seriously injured plaintiff and a defendant with deep-pockets) are obvious. However, there are equally important, though far less obvious ingredients.
As the old saying goes: you need to spend money to make money. Nowhere is this adage truer than in serious personal injury cases. A lawyer prosecuting a large claim needs considerable resources. You must be able to spend hundreds of thousands of dollars in disbursements; without batting an eye. We did not hire one or two private detectives. We hired a team of private detectives. They flew across the province to interview witnesses, police officers and paramedics. On top of the usual medical experts, we hired experts on everything from highway engineering to meteorology to road maintenance procedures.
The right experts make all the difference. A case with damages this severe meant that we had to hire leaders in the field of neuropsychiatry, neuropsychology, occupational therapy and speech-language pathology. It also required an exceptional treatment team: to document ongoing difficulties, corroborate medical reports and provide comfort and support to the victim and his family. Proper valuation of the claim demanded a world-class team, including medical professionals, accountants and academics.
Not all of these experts could be found in Sudbury. It is not unusual for our firm to hire leading experts from across the continent, from Toronto, British Columbia, Alberta, Harvard or California.
The Ministry self-insures. It retains top-notch counsel and fights these claims tooth and nail. At discoveries, counsel for the Ministry promised that the case would never settle. They claimed that the Ministry would never be held liable. At the mediation of this matter, a high-ranking Ministry official commented that he had never before seen preparation this thorough. As a result, the Ministry offered to settle the case for more money than it had ever paid before.
After you settle a case for $11.7-million, it is easy to look back at it as a “sure thing” from day one. It is tempting to re-write history and tell yourself that you were confident of the result the whole way through. It would be a mistake to do so here.
From day one, we knew that our client was not wearing a seatbelt. Right off the bat, the Defendants were entitled to a deduction for contributory negligence. On their face, the Ministry documents showed that the accident site had been continuously salted all day (including minutes before the collision). Establishing liability was going to be an uphill climb.
When we drilled down, we found contradictions in the Ministry documents. Upon receiving more documentation, we found more contradictions. Eventually, interviews with passing motorists and plow operators allowed us to completely undermine the Ministry’s self-serving documents. In fact, when our investigators went door-to-door in Sudbury, several Sudburians told them that this particular stretch of road was chronically underserviced.
In the end, the result could not have been more satisfying. A few short years after retaining us, our client has the financial resources to start planning and living the rest of his life.