Let’s face it, lawyers don’t have a good reputation. We’re seen as sharks, crooks, chiselers, and swindlers who are only out for the money and the quick dollar. Personal Injury attorneys, as portrayed in this episode are specifically derided as big-mouthed ambulance-chasing grifters and hustlers.

The recent episode of “The Conners” does nothing to help that reputation, and, in fact, works to additionally and unfairly harm the vision the public has of Personal Injury Attorneys. It is obvious that the writers have never had to deal with someone who actually works in the field of Personal Injury law.

Episode Synopsis

The episode starts with DJ Conner sitting on the couch feeling ill. He has taken the day off work restocking vending machines to get better. Jokes and some witty banter with sister Darlene and her kids happen, then enter Dan Conner with his arm in a sling.

Dan was covering for DJ at work and one of the vending machines, which was not properly secured to the wall, fell on him. He went to the Emergency Department for treatment which resulted in a bill, after Medicare, of over $6000.

Dan doesn’t want to sue, Darlene does. They both go to the HQ of the vending machine company to discuss what the company would do to cover the hospital bills. The company offers to pay half, and Darlene mentions hiring an attorney. The company representative cuts off negotiations from there.

Darlene then, against Dan’s wishes, call a lawyer. Enter possibly the worst portrayal of an attorney ever. He “sees six figures” and gets the family talking about how they’re going to spend all that money. Retirement, paying off the house, special trips, etc. it’s all on the table for the Conner family.

Of course, that’s not going to happen. When the lawyer returns it’s to tell the family that, after a single day and one attempt at negotiation, he’s been able to get the company to agree to a sum that, after his fee will result in the Conners owing a small amount rather than half the bill.

This lawyer “calls it a win” because he was able to get more money from the company. Dan calls him out and berates him for lying to the family and getting their hopes up then re-enters the home to disappoint the kids’ and their dreams.

More jokes at the system and the lawyer’s expense, with a final note on how the system sucks and we should all just stay healthy and work until we’re 100 because we’ll never be able to afford retirement.

The Good, The Bad, The Just Plain Wrong

A Good Start

Early on in the episode, when we first see Dan Conner and his injury, there are some really good points brought up about the current medical system and the way it’s being used and abused. Emergency Departments are being overwhelmed by people who are using it as their Primary Care option.

Blame is laid on the unaffordability of insurance and the rising costs of medical care. There are comments on the number of tests that EDs order that may or may not be necessary and the associated costs with those as well.

All of these are good and important points about the current state and cost of the medical industry in the United States. Too many people are unable to afford health care and emergency rooms are overburdened by the number of people needing non-emergency care. Since ERs are required to help anyone who walks in the door, uninsured use them for care a PCP would normally cover.

Insurance costs have also reached historically unprecedented highs forcing more and more people to go uncovered. Even those with jobs where insurance is offered sometimes have to decline coverage due to the associated costs.

Finally, doctors do order more tests now than they did a few years ago, and it can be said that personal injury attorney, specifically those in the medical malpractice field, share some of the blame for this. In order to ensure that the doctor has covered every possible issue and can’t be sued, they often will request tests that aren’t necessary in order to ensure they aren’t found liable for issues that arise in the future.

Bad Practices

Does no one know how to do their jobs in this episode? Ok, DJ Conner calls off of work because he’s sick. That’s fine and totally understandable. However, unless he’s an independent contractor which the episode denies by saying DJ was going to lose his job, then the company would have another one of their employees restocking the machines. Dan wouldn’t have to cover the shift. So why was he out there in the first place?

Next, when Dan and Darlene go to the company to discuss getting the bills covered, they’re talking to a company representative. If this were a small, home-run company that didn’t have a clue that might be the case. In the offices, we see vending machines from decades past, a large office, and clearly a well-established business. This isn’t a mom-and-pop organization. Why is the company trying to negotiate this at all? Why haven’t they called their insurance company to handle this issue for them? The only thing he did right is to stop talking when the word “lawyer” came up. That’s exactly what he should have done.

Finally, and this is just nit-picky on our part, why is the lawyer coming to a person’s home when he should be managing the cases he’s currently running. Ok, granted some attorneys (our included) will come to your home if you need them to in order to discuss a case, but this is only in the direst situations. If Dan were bed-ridden from the incident then that would be a different story.

That’s Just Wrong

Other than the unlikeliness of an attorney coming to the home of a potential client, there is so much that is said by and about the lawyer that is just plain wrong.

First off, a lawyer would never “see six figures” based on an initial, and extremely brief, consultation. Any lawyer who quotes numbers at that point is not someone you would want to hire. They would have no idea what the case is worth.

In order to begin having an idea about the value of a case, a good attorney will look at the medical records, they’ll get pictures of the accident scene. Depositions — interviews under oath — will be conducted of the emergency responders, the doctors, and any other witnesses will be conducted. The safety record of the company and their practices will be investigated.

Through that entire process, a good lawyer will try to dampen the expectations of their clients and keep them in check with what will happen and how much, if anything, will be recovered. They’ll also be giving good expectations of the time involved in the legal process.

On average, a personal injury case takes around 21 months from start to finish. With all the work that needs to go into researching what happened and who may be at fault and how it’s not a fast process. All of these things take time to coordinate.

That 21-month timeline is an average. So some cases will wrap up quickly, but others will take even longer. A case taking over two years isn’t unusual. Some cases, especially large multi-defendant cases, can take over a decade to move through the court system. Personal Injury Lawyers know this and will tell any client that the process takes time. They expect it and they want you to expect it too.

There’s also the criticism from Dan that the lawyer was just out for a quick payday. There are those attorneys out there, we can’t deny that. But they aren’t typical. If an attorney is successful enough to be advertising (even on a gas pump) they are probably smart and financially stable enough not to need a quick payday. Besides this, the amount of money likely from Dan’s case is not a huge payday for a successful attorney.

Dan’s Case – How it Would Work

Let’s take a look at the details of Dan’s case given what we know from the show. A vending machine fell on him. He went to the Emergency Department for medical attention. He came home on the same day with injuries that required a sling for his arm.

Here’s what we know about the costs of the case (and we’re going to have to make a few assumptions here.) Mentioned in the episode are the following numbers $6000 in remaining expenses from the ED. Medicare has already covered 80% of the total hospital costs. $800 for the two-block Ambulance ride to the hospital.

Using some basic math that means that means that Dan’s original bill ($6000 x 5) was around $30,000 for the hospital and $800 for the ambulance. Let’s say that Dan’s total bill was $31,000 to make the math easy for us. This is a pretty average bill for an emergency department visit. (Sad but true.)

Here’s what a lawyer will do immediately. They’ll talk to Dan and get information on what happened from his point of view. Here’s what they’ll hear:

Some lawyers would not take the case because of these facts. Dan, an untrained non-employee of the company was working without authorization on the vending machine without their permission. There are a lot of strikes against him in this case.

Some lawyers will see the fact that Dan was pinned under the machine and that it wasn’t secured to the wall as it should have been. If Dan was just another person using the machine and it fell on him, then it would be a case, so it might be now as well.

This decision would depend on the attorney and what type of cases they’ve had in the past and what types of cases they were used to taking. Let’s assume that the lawyer in question would take the case because Dan is a sympathetic person who was trying to help out his son in a time of need. Not an unreasonable assumption.

From There…

Once a lawyer has decided to take Dan’s case they’ll first explain that the process will take a while, possibly years. Then they will discuss what they are going to try to get from the case financially. It’s not what you think.

A Personal Injury Attorney is going to try to get Dan back to where he was before the accident, physically and financially. There are no windfalls! There’s no paying off the mortgage unless he had to take one out to pay the medical bills.

Dan will have his medical bills paid for. The attorney’s fees will be covered, and the costs the attorney paid for medical records, depositions, experts, and other incidentals will be repaid. They will also take a fee to pay for their time and cover their monthly expenses. That fee can be as low as 20% of the total settlement or as high as 40% depending on the results and the attorney’s fee structure.

For a case where there are $31,000 in medical bills, it is not unreasonable to assume that the insurance company for the vending machine company would pay that and more in a settlement. They will fight it and they’ll point the blame elsewhere. They’ll argue and blame Dan and do all the other things that insurance companies and their lawyers do to get out of paying a claim. It’s what they do and it’s all part of the system.

Assuming everything goes well, it is not unreasonable to see a settlement of $50,000 for a case of this type with medical bills where they are. If that’s the case, and let’s assume it is, and let’s also assume the attorney has a moderate fee structure. They’ll take 30% of that $50,000 so they get $15,000.

Assuming they have $5,000 in expenses, also reasonable, then there is $30,000 left for the Conners to pay their bills with. Meaning that, like the television show, they will end up owing a little at the end.

But there are a couple of other things that a Good Personal Injury Attorney is going to be calling the hospital, the ambulance company, any doctors’ offices, and any other company involved in treating Dan to get those bills reduced. Most of those companies are willing to lower the charges on an account if they can guarantee they will get paid.

Some won’t budge at all, but others will take as little as 50% off the amount on the initial bill. Again, we have to make some assumptions, but let’s say that, after negotiating the lawyer and his staff are able to get the total medical bills reduced by 20%. After that Dan would have to pay around $24,800 ($31,000 x 80%.)

Now instead of owing money, he’ll have around $5,000 coming to him and the family. It’s not a windfall, but it’s better than nothing and it will leave the Conners with some money to play with. They won’t be paying off the mortgage, but maybe they can send Mark to camp and possibly get a new couch?

Don't Trust the TV when it comes to the Law