The Right Thing

I rolled down the interstate in my Acura, heading out of the city under a searing, oppressive sun, the highway traffic as crowded as my thoughts.

I was driving to a deposition, usually an event of some fancied import, even if the only net effects are to harass my overburdened opponent and annoy the witness. But this one was different. This one was genuinely critical, perhaps more so than any other in my 20-year career as an attorney.

I’m a personal injury lawyer. Yes, I know, the bane of society according to some. That day I was working for a client who had been badly injured in an accident. Her vehicle and another going the same direction ended up in an awkward side-by-side metal mating. The cars had careened off either way, and my client got the worst of it by far, with crippling back and leg injuries, the costs of which her insurance would never come close to covering.

My client claimed that she was sideswiped by the other car. The other driver said the same thing about my client. I hired an accident reconstructionist who put the blame on the other driver; Dan O’Shannon, insurance defense opponent, had the mirror-image expert report from his reconstructionist. I was quite sure that the jury would disregard them both.

That left credibility of the parties’ testimony – the dreaded jury personality test, especially feared when you represent the lesser personality. I was sure my client would not pass. I had accepted the case before realizing its chanciness, and as happens so often, the unwinding of a case started gaining inertia. The extent of her injuries would garner emotional support, but she was bitter and resentful, with a video deposition taken by O’Shannon to prove it. I could easily see a jury not wanting to place the greater-than-50 percent blame on the defendant, a polished business and family man.

So in this wondrous system of justice and healthcare in the most powerful nation in the world, my doleful expectation was that my client would face therapies and treatments that she could not afford, enhanced by a constant stream of pain and continued pestering by collection agencies.

And then something miraculous, or nearly so, happened – a sun-bright radiance of hope that yet carried a terrible dark side. In a fit of desperation, I fronted an ad in the paper asking for anyone who might have seen the accident at the date and time when it happened. I had done so twice in other cases without results, but this one unexpectedly paid off. A man named Gilbert Chadrig called. He lived in Banturn, a rural community. In a clearly weakened and fatigued voice, he related stunning news. He had seen the accident, stopped, then driven on when others showed up and it looked like things would be taken care of. But now having seen the ad, he wanted to do the right thing.

The bright flash of welcome news: He definitively identified my client as having been sideswiped by the other driver.

The darkness that shadowed his story was the fact that he had not stopped then because he was returning from chemotherapy and was feeling sick and frail. Ultimately, the course of treatment was unsuccessful. He was in the latter phases of Stage 4, with but a few days to live.

His wife then took over the phone. I pleaded with her out of more than formulaic advocacy. I was in full emotional commitment. I stressed the need to take his deposition for presentation at trial. She refused, citing his need to rest and depart the world of the flesh as trouble-free as possible. I pressed and pleaded until I finally heard his shaky voice close to the phone say, “Charlotte, give them a half hour with me. I want to go knowing that I’ve done the right thing.”

The right thing. To bring lights, camera, videographer, court reporter, and lawyers for a prickly home invasion to confront a dying man.  Sometimes the right thing doesn’t feel so right.

I sent my disclosure to O’Shannon, along with a deposition notice for preservation of testimony for trial.  Not too surprisingly, he was unhappy with this turn of events. But we were still in discovery, so there was little for him to do other than show up and see how bad it would be. I inwardly sympathized with his prospects of preparing cross-examination of our fragile subject.

Deposition day found me en route to Banturn, with my client’s case and her future now facing a measure of salvation. As I drove out from the crowded urban setting, exiting the interstate in favor of a two-lane state highway, the traffic became increasingly scattered, its thinning echoed in the surrounding dearth of buildings. I had timed the drive to arrive early to offer my best and most genteel manners, evaluate Mr. Chadrig, and do some prepping of him if that were possible. I had an outline of questions, and I was mentally probing it as I drove, rehearsing it for maximum effect.

A puff of smoke from a car ahead jolted me from the reverie. Its left rear tire had blown, and a piece of rubber emerged from the smoke, bouncing out and back from the car. I slowed, expecting the car to head for the shoulder, but neither of us were that lucky. The car skidded to one side, the driver overcorrected, and the resulting fishtail took the vehicle off the side of the road and into the ditch, where a traversing banked ranch access road greeted it.

I slowed and quick-checked my rearview mirror, relieved that traffic behind was clear, then watched in horror as the car’s front corner dove into the ditch, hit the crossing access road’s embankment, the front end crunching in, sending it into a violent, chest-tightening multiple roll up and over the access road, metal parts flying away, alternatively flashing views to me of dark underside, collapsing doors, and caving roof, with dust, dirt, and glass pieces exploding into the air, until it finally came to rest back on its wheels, bent and crumpled, tilted in the ditch.

I braked to a stop, found my cell phone, and ran to the trunk for the first aid kit as I punched 911. I related, a little breathlessly, the nature of the accident and our location as I hurried to the wreck, rounded the back, and looked to the driver’s side.

What I saw drove thoughts of the phone call entirely from my mind.

A man was at the driver’s side, bloodied head lolling to the left, his arm straggling outside the door. From high on that arm, steady jets of scarlet hit the outside of the door, streaming down the dented metal in alarming volume.

Before going to law school, I had been a paramedic in my hometown’s volunteer fire department. The training was a boon to my ultimate career in personal injury law, having gained a greater-than-common medical knowledge of trauma.

I instantly knew that whatever other injuries might be present in the wreck, the man’s brachial artery was severed, and this was life-threatening.

I ran up, took a compress from the kit, and lifted his arm. The wound was up high and on the underside, jagged edges of flesh visible under the dripping and spurting mass of blood. I pressed the bandage to the wound. The compress turned bright red, but the bleeding slowed, then stopped as I pressed ever harder.

“Sir, I am medically trained.” It was a gentle lie. I had not treated at a scene for decades. “Can you hear me?”

He lifted his head and turned rheumy, unfocused eyes in my direction. He opened his mouth to talk but instead choked, turned back forward, leaning in his seat, and coughed blood onto the deflated airbag.

Oh, just great.

“Is there anyone in the car with you?”

He shook his head. His chest heaved, his breath rattling within. He coughed again, more blood following. His head was laced with blood trails. Blood had collected in his mouth, and he had choked on it, causing the coughing. Or so I hoped.

I bound the compress very tightly against his arm and continued direct manual pressure, thinking furiously through my old treatment protocols, the memories now rusty in the windblown dust of the ensuing years of a legal career.

My thoughts returned to my witness, Mr. Chadrig. He needed to testify and bring a jury to the right conclusion, or O’Shannon to make a reasonable settlement offer. My client needed her compensation. And I had bills to pay. When would the ambulance arrive? How long was I going to be here, attending to this driver? When could I get to the deposition?

I bent down. “What’s your name, sir?” I was asking both to keep him engaged and to evaluate neurological impairment he might have with his speech. I reached down and squeezed his hand in an awkward left-side handshake between us.

He squeezed back and turned to me.  “Leon Harwood,” he croaked. The words were followed by a trickle of blood from his mouth. So he had sensation in his extremity, could understand speech, and respond appropriately. That much, at least, was good.

A car pulled up with a couple in the front and two little ones in child seats in the back. The woman on the passenger seat rolled her window down and called out, “What happened? Can we help?”

“I’m checking out his wounds. I called 911. Can you call them as well?”

She nodded, brought up a cellphone, and the car rolled ahead and parked on the shoulder.

Time ticked away. I would be here for a while yet. I checked the bandage. It seemed to have the blood flow stanched for the moment. I felt for the phone in my pocket, where I’d unconsciously replaced it when I first saw Harwood, and pulled it out.

“Mr. Harwood? I’m not going anywhere, but I’m going to make a quick phone call.”

The response was clicks from the door mechanism. He tried to push it open. The door offered a gap of a couple inches.

“Help me out,” he rasped.

I gritted my teeth and put the phone back. He was showing mobility and awareness of surroundings. Again, good. And I would be better able to inspect him lying down outside. His movements suggested no spinal cord trauma. Moving him might be risky, but he had already lost blood, and he could be bleeding from other unseen wounds. Taking him out of the car was worth the risk.

But the time!

I tugged at the door, and it opened a few inches more, the door metal squawking and protesting as it confronted resistance from the collapsed front quarterpanel.

The man from the family car trotted up. “Give you a hand here?”

I nodded. “I’m Bill.” I raised my hand to shake his, noticed that I had blood spatters on mine, and waved instead.

“Frank,” he replied, and we bent our efforts to the door. I hoisted up Harwood’s injured arm with one hand to slide through the window frame as the door opened. We kept pulling, gaining a few inches at a time, until our repeated efforts finally gave the driver about a foot and a half of clearance.

“Mr. Harwood, this is important,” I called. “Are you able to move your arms and legs? I’m going to keep hold of your arm while you try.”

He brought his right arm up, then his legs in an awkward crunch-up motion. He winced and whimpered with pain but said, “Yes.”

“Okay. We’re going to help you from the car. We have to keep this arm as still as possible, and hold your head as steady as you can. Do you understand?”

“Yes.”

Some minutes later, following earnest but gentle-as-possible wrangling with Harwood’s near-dead weight, punctuated by ever shorter bouts of coughing and intermittent cries of pain, he was lying by the ditch. I checked his vitals and did a quick search over his body for obvious trauma. The blood on his head came from a gash above the hairline. His clothes showed bloodstains all over, not too surprising with the head wound and the gush from the severed artery.

The need to get to the deposition consumed my thoughts. But I had to address his obvious trauma. I took out two more compresses, pressed one to the head wound, and started wiping blood from Harwood’s head and face with the other. I succeeded in cleaning up some and smearing the rest.

The woman from the family car walked up. “The 911 girl said responders are headed here. She didn’t give an ETA. Just as soon as they could make it.”

The news was welcome, if uncertain. Were they talking two minutes or twenty?

I turned to Frank. “Can you hold this compress here against his head? I need to make a quick phone call.”

He frowned. “Now? Can’t it wait?”

Could it wait? I was looking at an accident victim with bloody wounds, perhaps a concussion, perhaps internal injuries. But there was little I could do other than keep him stable until help arrived. A vision sprang to mind of my client in the future, crippled and destitute, making arrangements to move her furniture out of her foreclosed home.

“I really need to make a call. It turns out I have two life-and-death situations today.”

He lifted my hand off the compress and replaced it with his. “Go make your call.”

His tone was flat. I was unsure if he believed me, but I was grateful. I stood up, fished out my phone, and speed-dialed my assistant.

“Shirley, listen,” I said before she could finish her intro. “I ran into an accident and am helping out. I might be late for the depo. Can you call Dan O’Shannon’s office and let him know?”

She was a quick study, always had been. “I bet he’s on the road now. I’ll call his office and see if his paralegal will give me his cell number or maybe call him herself.”

“Okay,” I replied, frantically thinking through the possibilities.

I was dimly aware of other people arriving. I heard Frank say, “He seems to know what he’s doing.” Is he talking about me?

Shirley’s voice, partly obscured by static-rasp on the phone connection, came back through. “The videographer will be there about an hour ahead, and the reporter will get there early. I’ll call the reporting agency and find a way to get the message to them too.”

“Perfect,” I said and added my first good idea. “And call Mr. Chadrig’s house to let them know what’s going on. His number’s in the file. If I can’t get there, I’ll shake loose here to call in to do it by phone.”

Shirley’s voice was hesitant. “Are you okay, Bill?”

“I’m fine. I saw the accident happen, the driver’s hurt bad, and I had to help.”

“Understood. I’ll make those calls,” and she clicked off. Shirley was not one to stand on ceremony.

Frank’s voice broke through. “Bill! We need you here!”

I tucked the phone away, hurried back, and bent down. Harwood was whimpering, pressing his right arm to the left side of his chest, gasping for breath.

This was bad. The way Harwood was acting, he could have had a pneumothorax, where air invades the chest and the lung is subject to collapse. I had precious little means of evaluating for that.

“Keep the pressure on,” I told Frank, and to Harwood, “Just lie still. I’m going to look at your chest, okay?”

Harwood nodded, his eyes clearly betraying his fright.

He was wearing a T-shirt. I grabbed it at the neckline and ripped it open, after struggling a little with the reinforced hem, and laid his chest bare. I immediately noticed that some of the blood that I took for spatters had actually seeped up from an open cut on Harwood’s chest, not too far from the arm laceration, and perhaps from the same means. But the blood wasn’t copious or bubbling in the wound. While I retrieved the fourth and last compress from the kit, I savagely wished the hypothetical pneumothorax away. It would further endanger Harwood and bind me to his treatment more tightly.

“Just lie easy,” I said to Harwood as gently as I could. “You might have a broken rib or two, and that’s going to hurt like hell, but the ambulance will help with that.”

He nodded again, drew in a breath sharply, shrieked, gripping his uncovered chest, and shrieked again.

“Easy,” I said. “If it’s a broken rib, sudden movements and deep breaths will hurt. Just try to relax and lie still.”

A muffled ringtone sounded, with the accompanying buzz in my pocket. I took Harwood’s right hand and placed it on the compress.

“Here,” I said. “You’ve got a little wound there, and we need to keep pressure on it. But you hold it there tight but where it doesn’t hurt too much.”

I felt the pressure of his hand on the compress in response.

I stood up, once again bringing up the phone. I looked down at Frank. He still had his hand on the head bandage, but his return glance to me had gone from a flat expression to genuine annoyance.

He was right to feel that way. I was needed to help this bleeding and broken man, and I was taking timeouts for phone calls.

“Hello.”

A familiar voice came on. “Bill, Dan O’Shannon. I heard you’re running late for the depo. You know this witness came up suddenly, I’m just about there, I have other commitments, and I can’t just hang around indefinitely, nor is that fair for my client. I’m sorry, but if you take too long, I’m canceling it.”

“Dan, wait. I’m here at an accident scene, giving first aid. You have to understand that.”

“I do understand. But we both play by the same rules. If people don’t show up for a deposition who are supposed to be there, it gets canceled.”

“For one thing, I noticed it and you can’t cancel it. But for God’s sake, Dan, I’m engaged in saving a life here, and you need to cut me some slack. We have an important witness, and I’m just asking that you allow a level of justice in this case.”

The words sounded a little hollow, even to me, and as they generally do when I invoke “justice.”

A short pause before his answer. “One, if you’re saving a life, it’s funny that you’ve got time for phone calls. Two, I think you’re asking me, a zealous advocate for my client, to help you arrange special circumstances to develop a witness that you think will help out your client. I can’t ethically do that.”

Frank’s voice cut through again. “Hey! We need you here. Can you put down the phone for a second?”

I needed to talk further with O’Shannon. But what was happening to Harwood? A new wound? Did the bandage lose purchase on his arm?

I pondered telling O’Shannon that I might conduct the deposition by phone but decided against it. I needed to get back to the victim, and if a phone deposition happened, I’d take an evil little pleasure in surprising him with the move.

“Gotta go, Dan. I really am saving a life.” I clicked off and hurried back to Harwood. He was starting to shiver, reddened teeth occasionally chattering. He was going into shock.

I knelt by him and looked around. “Does anyone have a blanket they can spare?”

No one answered, either because they couldn’t help or didn’t want their blanket stained with blood.

Frank’s wife was standing close by. I said to her, “That’s my Acura behind us. There’s a sports jacket on the back seat. Grab it and bring it over.”

I turned back to Harwood and rubbed his uninjured arm. “You’re just having a little bit of a shock reaction. It’s normal. Just try to relax.”

The wife brought my navy blue jacket, and I covered Harwood’s torso with it. Frank was watching, and I murmured to him, “There goes my jacket.”

He nodded at me. “Not just the jacket.”

I looked down and saw what he meant. I had not realized how much blood Harwood had sprayed. My shirt was drenched in it. I looked like someone hired to be Victim Number 11 in a mad slasher movie.

“I cannot show up like this,” I whispered and shook my head to Frank’s, “What?”

The muffled phone tones came through again with the concurrent buzz in my pocket. I took the phone out, saw it was Shirley, clicked to answer and told her, “Just a minute,” before looking to Frank’s wife.

“Here, come down here and rub his shoulder and reassure him. He needs to stay as warm and calm as possible, and being attended by a pretty lady can’t hurt.”

She smiled and knelt down, but Frank’s glare and scowl at me spoke volumes.

I stood up, moved away, and brought the phone up. “Yes?”

Shirley’s voice was tense. “I couldn’t reach the videographer or reporter.  I got hold of the Chadrigs, and it turns out there’s no cell service out there. They just have a landline with no speaker. She said the videographer and reporter are there, ready to go. It’s still early, but how soon can you make it?”

So no phone deposition was possible.

The outside noise flattened out, although the wail of a siren cut through. My voice was leaden and dull. “I don’t know. I think we’re getting help now, but I don’t see me leaving for a while.”

“Get back to saving a life, and let me know. I’ll do what I can.”

I clicked off, sent up a quick prayer for a Shirley miracle, and turned to survey the scene. A State Patrol car was stopped short of the wreck, the trooper just getting out. I ran up to him and, quickly explained the situation. He nodded and spoke rapidly into his radio.

Another wail announced the arrival of an ambulance, slowing to navigate through the crush of cars that had gathered.

I spun again to look Harwood’s direction, cellphone still in hand, just as the patrolman clicked off the radio, moving to run around me to Harwood. As he shouldered by, he bumped against me, hard. I staggered, and the phone leapt from my hand, falling and skittering away on the pavement.

I had an instantaneous thought of Thank God it’s in a case when the ambulance passed by in its stately yet urgent way, its right front tire rolling over my phone, followed by the dual rear tires on the same path. The crunch and crash of the crushed phone was perhaps more in my imagination than my ears, but even now, I can still hear it clearly.

The sounds of the world seemed to mute once again, leaving me with my roiling thoughts. Harwood was attended to and would be okay now, but my client would not, Mrs. Chadrig would not let her husband wait all afternoon, would insist he needed rest, O’Shannon would leave and possibly take the videographer and reporter with him, and my client would carry her disabling injuries throughout her future, bearing them in terrible and unfair destitution. I would be out my expenses and time.

My chest tightened to a knot. I had stopped to help a man and doomed a woman because of it. Too much to bear.

I looked around. The responders’ and onlookers’ cars had me blocked in. The paramedics gathered around Harwood. The patrolman was venturing out to do his traffic supervision. I would be needed to make a statement about what I saw of the accident, Harwood’s condition, and my actions. I had been in these very situations decades ago. Except for care and transport of the patient, nothing would go quickly from here.

I walked slowly to my car, got in, and sat at the wheel, gripped it, lowered my head to my arms, and sobbed in frustration and despair.

___________

Stifling darkness pervaded when I got home. I knew I had to check email and pick up voicemail from calls that had gone to my dead and unheeding cellphone, but I simply could not yet bear the burden of reliving the day’s failure. I showered and changed clothes. I relegated my bloodied shirt to the trash, wondering what the garbage collectors might think if they saw it.

I was hungry but could not stand to eat, not yet. I went to my desk, opened my laptop, and with a heavy sigh, checked email.

An electronic crowd descended in text form, the usual assortment of catch-ups, notices, annoyances from other attorneys, commercial offers that make you wonder why you subscribed, and two that caught my attention, one from O’Shannon and one from Shirley.

O’Shannon’s email was stunning. He expressed conciliatory language along with an offer of settlement, a number that contained two commas and was shockingly close to what my client and I had agreed we would settle for.

I sat back, unbelieving. I could not understand this turn. Something was wrong. It had to be a mistake. I leaned forward and clicked on Shirley’s email.

Bill, I can’t get hold of you, so I hope you get the message soon. I talked to the Chadrigs. They’re friends with Al Hashimoto, a lawyer in Banturn. I called and he agreed to enter a special appearance so he could run over and take the deposition. I briefed him on the case as he drove over. He called me back when it was done and said it went well. I guess we’ll see when we get the transcript and video. S.

As awareness sank in, my mood blossomed like a sunflower greeting the morning sky. This was not the first time Shirley had bailed me out, but it was perhaps the most profound.

One thing left. I had known the reporter on the case, Carlene Flanjes, for the last 15 years. We got along great. I found her cell number and called. She answered quickly, as she always did unless she was at an assignment.

“Yeah, Bill. Sorry you couldn’t make it today. I heard you had quite an afternoon. Are you okay?”

“I’m fine. Listen, I need to ask you something, and don’t give me that stuff about you weren’t listening, you weren’t paying attention, you don’t have an opinion. I need to know what happened.”

“I’ll do what I can within the bounds of my ethics.”

Court reporters can be an inscrutable lot.

So,” I began, and took a breath, “what the hell happened?”

“Oh, Al Hashimoto did a good job, but the questions were pretty straightforward. You know, ‘What happened next?’ You’ll see it on the transcript. Mr. Chadrig described the accident, that it was the defendant swerving over and causing it. Al nailed it down pretty well.”

“What about the cross-examination? O’Shannon must’ve hammered on whatever painkillers he’s on, how reliable he is because of his condition, how long ago this was, and so on.”

“Well, that was the part I didn’t expect. Dan didn’t ask any questions. I’m talking a little out of school here, but after the depo he said to me and Terry, the videographer, ‘Anything I asked would’ve just made it worse.’ Maybe he’s right. Mr. Chadrig’s description was very strong and clear, and it was all so sad, the way he looked and with him dying soon. We were all pretty much crying by the end.”

I said my thank-yous, we said our good-byes, hung up, and I thought about it. Sure, the direct exam might not have gone to O’Shannon’s liking, but he was already in a losing position. He couldn’t make his position worse just by gently challenging the strength of Chadrig’s recollections.

Maybe in the glimmer of hard-edged advocacy, he had decided to justify taking a higher road toward a fair conclusion. And perhaps mixed in was mercy for Mr. Chadrig’s condition. Such tenderness would not be like him – or me, for that matter – but just maybe it had happened like that.

I finally went to bed and slept the sleep of a relieved mind, particularly so with no phone distractions.

Morning dawned bright and clear and by 8:00 a.m. found me, refreshed, at my desk. Shirley came in and caught me up on the prior day. I had to arrange for a new phone, get Al Hashimoto’s time and pay him handsomely for it, and reply to O’Shannon and bump up the offer more before settling. But one other item remained. I looked up the Chadrigs’ number, called, and got his wife.

“I wanted to call and thank –“

“I’m sorry, Mr. Lowe. Gilbert passed away last night.”

I sat in silence, stunned.

“If it helps, he was happy to see Hashi one more time and that he helped out your lady.”

I finally choked out, “I’m sorry to hear about him. I’m so very sorry.”

“Thank you. The whole family was here last night to see him, and he slipped away later very peacefully.” She hesitated before venturing. “I hope he was a good witness for you.”

That gave me pause. As it happened, Gilbert Chadrig wasn’t my witness at all. I didn’t even know what he looked like, although I would find out at the funeral. No, he was Al Hashimoto’s witness. I’d had nothing to do with how my case had been salvaged by this genuine and generous man, offering himself at the center of another person’s controversy while at the edge of his own life.

I nodded, although she couldn’t see it. Tears burned my eyes.

“Yes, he was. The best I’ve ever had.”

— Grandpa

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