I read this news item sent to me by my son who attends Creighton Law School in Omaha.
Siouxland Matters: Storm Lake Teen Dies in Farming Accident, “A Storm Lake teen has perished in a deadly farm accident. 16 year old Connor Weiland fell onto a piece of machinery while trying to clear a clog and was subsequently pronounced dead at the scene.” Story by ABC News Producer, Kristen McConnaughey
As graduation looms in the not-too-distant future my son must wonder more every day about how his father lives with all the deaths he has known and all the injured children who have been his clients. My daughter, Katrina has now worked with me for over two years and has seen her share of the injured, the mangled, the interned and those who just continue to suffer with ruptured discs, loss of limbs, bad facial scars or complex brain damage. Not much of what I have seen for the past 33 years leaves me. I must admit to being very disturbed by some of what I dream about when I should be sleeping. There are many children and a few juries who visit me quite often, when what should be the absence of thought, to etch my memory as if a faucet were dripping sulfuric acid along the outer edges of my dreams. Many of these nights these thoughts simply will not allow me to remain in bed and asleep.
Would you like to know some of what keeps me awake in the wee hours of the morning? Well, I will tell my daughter, my son and anyone considering this life as a plaintiffs’ personal injury lawyer because you might as well understand the terrain for which you aspire.
First know it is always after midnight when everyone else on the planet is deep asleep that I find myself fighting demons. I have always referred to is as “fighting demons”. I cannot explain it any other way. I have never watched horror movies. Not since watching my father die when he was only thirty-seven and I just twelve. It was a cruel death but one that taught me how poor widows raise children with little to eat and even less money to spare. Horror movies would simply add another layer of what already is a battleground that frankly, as I am sure you can see, I just don’t need.
While the practice of law has been a fight I so enjoy, it has also been a menu of lost limbs and damaged lives. This plate after thirty-three years is quite full. I can awaken from the soundest sleep and find myself arguing the same case over and over again. As my own worst critic I know every mistake I have made, every wrong turn made and every heartless adjuster and defense attorney encountered. The backyard of my mind is littered with broken limbs, those torn off shoulders, legs amputated by tons of concrete, broken necks from ski trips, heads and brains bashed in by concrete roads, corpses burned to a crisp, heads severed, those that were split open by another semi-truck, stone walls and red-top iron fence posts that pieced skulls and made for late night reading in the many pages of autopsy reports read out of necessity to know the facts. These are the short stories that fill this kaleidoscope of the litigation landscape that clouds the far reaching recesses of my mind. I have that memory of the four-year olds tender skull being run over by a four-foot tire on a three-wheeled piece of farm field equipment. The mother finding the child as the equipment operator pulled away. Both cried uncontrollably weeping for the mistakes each had made. The child still lays motionless as the mother attempts CPR, her nylon jacket inflating with each breath. I see this mother sitting as if still in finishing school, legs crossed, perfectly dressed describing the events that made this farmyard a graveyard. In that moment with all the strength she could muster I knew I loved that mother. I cried after the deposition on the drive back to the office.
There is the young man who while working his UNI summer job ended up across the electrical leads of air-conditioning units on top of a building that dimmed the lights as his body had holes blown out to every weak point in the human body. He survived. I was not sure I would or could or even would want to, if I were him.
There was the young man I admired who could change the tire on his Ford pickup truck even after having his one arm tore off when the auger shaft grabbed a hold of his shirt sleeve pulling off his arm. Brian’s story made me want to do this work more than most. The auger could have been made safe by only the addition of PVC pipe added to the shaft. He showed us with his one good arm, how the turning shaft was neutralized when he grabbed it while turning. I was so scared that when he told me what he was about to do. And while I didn’t know what I would do if his one good arm was torn asunder, he confidently proved what the engineers at W.R. Grace knew all along and refused to implement.
There was the high school student who while using a table saw without a guard, cut off his finger and proved to me he could invest his settlement money and turn the proceeds into a business and himself into an independent businessman. He proved to me that it was true that what I could do was improve people’s lives though personal injury litigation. They all proved this to me.
And I proved to myself that I too could do good for the common working man and woman.
There was the young mother who struggling to make ends meet would fight back from the hotel owner who promoted her so she would be forced to be alone with him so he could sexually harass her. I still recall the last question on the recording she made of their not-too-private conversation. “What would you wife say if she knew what you were asking me to do?” His answer and our fight before the Iowa Civil Rights Commission sent him flying across the border and out of Iowa. Good riddance was all I could say. The fact we never collected a dime of the award made little difference to either of us.
I could go on and on all night with the thousands I have fought for since when first licensed to practice law, but I won’t because it isn’t really necessary.
You see the demons awaken me, but the promise of a new day with new fights to fight and battles to be won soon chase away those dark thoughts of the bruises my clients have endured and get me back to sleep so that by 5:00 A.M. I can climb out of bed and back into the world of litigation to once again fight the good fight.
Katrina and I will travel to Creighton University School of Law on Tuesday to address the law students in the employment law group. We will speak and answer questions as best as we know how. From me they will not learn anything earth shattering. What they will hear is why I love this job and probably why I will die in the saddle. And when that day comes hopefully I am a better man for what I have learned from representing the widows, orphans, the underrepresented, the poor, the working class and those who like my family never met a lawyer until they needed one. If I can give my clients one thing let it be, an honest day’s work.
For this I am grateful.