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Virginia Lawyers Weekly: College student’s cognitive struggles linked to 1999 accident

$1,700,000 Settlement
May 20, 2013 ARTICLE SOURCE:

On March 15, 1999, a tractor-trailer operated by the defendant truck driver crossed over the center line of Route 340 in Clarke County, and ran nearly head-on into a Toyota Corolla driven by the plaintiff’s father. The truck driver had not seen a car slowing in front of him to make a left turn, braked too late, jackknifed and slid into the plaintiff’s lane of traffic.

The plaintiff, a 7-year-old girl, was riding in the front seat with her father. Despite being belted, she suffered a significant head injury, with a broken nose and major bruising to her eyes and face, although the ER did not diagnose a concussion. A Good Samaritan, a 25-year-old man and the first witness on the scene, found the plaintiff unconscious, hanging by her seat belt, with the car teetering over a seven to 10-foot ravine. He gently extricated her, still unconscious, and carried her to safety. She finally gained consciousness after five minutes, only to discover her father was not present, having been rushed to the hospital.

The plaintiff, in first grade, returned to school and continued to earn good grades. Family members, however, observed significant personality changes – anger, a very short and unpredictable temper, isolating herself – which only worsened as she grew older. These changes resulted in alienating friends, a physical altercation that led to school suspension and a trail of relationships destroyed by an inability to relate to others. Family members, her counselor and others offered poignant testimony to her profound psychiatric problems, exacerbated by her cognitive struggles, especially when she entered college.

Neuroimaging through PET scanning and a brain MRI with diffusion tensor imaging both revealed persistent evidence of brain dysfunction and damage. The defense argued that she had suffered no brain injury, as evidenced by the lack of any TBI or concussion diagnosis in the ER, her outstanding grades throughout elementary, middle and high school, and her matriculation into a competitive four-year college. However, she was provided a 504 plan with accommodations for a traumatic brain injury, with significant impairments in memory and processing speed. The defendants’ pediatric neurologist acknowledged she had suffered a brain injury in the wreck, but opined that she had no lasting cognitive consequences. He did acknowledge that her behavior was far outside the norm.

The defendants’ neuropsychologist concluded that emotional issues claimed by the plaintiff could not have resulted from the collision because there were no complaints of emotional issues in plaintiff’s early medical records. Furthermore, this expert disputed plaintiff’s claims of cognitive deficits because plaintiff obtained stellar grades in high school and matriculated at a four-year college with minimal academic accommodations. The defendants’ neuroimaging experts opined that PET scanning was not an especially reliable tool for diagnosing brain dysfunction for TBI.

The crash affected the Good Samaritan witness profoundly. For 13 years he kept a newspaper photograph of the wreck, and told plaintiff’s counsel how deeply it had affected him. He would have been the first witness called at trial.
This is believed to be the largest personal injury settlement or verdict in the history of Clarke County.

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