In this insightful interview, we delve into the financial impact of a personal injury case with two interviewees: Elan Wurtzel, a personal injury lawyer, and Bryan Trugman, a Certified Financial Planner. He emphasizes points such as the importance of receiving guidance and understanding what this kind of money means for their new life. The interview sheds light on the human impact of personal injury accidents and the crucial role of financial planning in securing a stable future for the injured victim. Elan discusses a case he represented involving a client who suffered a traumatic brain injury while working on a construction site — as a result, his client’s life drastically changed. Elan explains the challenges they faced in proving liability and the eventual settlement for two million dollars. Bryan offers valuable advice on how people should handle these types of settlements.
Can you tell us about the personal injury case?
Elan: I represented a gentleman by the name of Tom, he was involved in a very serious accident in 2017. He was working on a construction site in Manhattan. His job was to secure the open sides of the building as new floors were being built so that people, equipment, and debris wouldn’t fall out to the ground below. The incident happened very early in the morning about 4:30 AM, on the 54th floor of the building. Tom slipped and fell on a slick concrete floor and hit his head on the concrete floor. As a result of the accident, he suffered a traumatic brain injury, as well as other serious injuries
From that time to the present day, he’s never been able to return to work. He was examined by one of the defendants’ experts, a vocational rehab specialist, who acknowledged that Tom did not have the physical or mental capacity to do any kind of work ever again. At the time of the accident, he was 56 years old and was earning over $100,000 a year. He went from making a very nice living to earning zero, other than what workers comp paid, which was minimal as compared to what his actual wages were.
You mentioned a bit about the general financial costs to your client. What are some specific financial costs?
Elan: His injuries and medical condition required extensive medical care. He underwent several surgical procedures to treat his injuries, spinal procedures, and a procedure to implant a device in his head to minimize pain. He had extensive physical cognitive therapy and psychological counseling because of these injuries — in addition to the physical effects, there were mental and emotional effects. His income went down to almost nothing and his lifestyle changed from a regular middle-class lifestyle. He went from living on his own to living in a house with 10 other guys sharing two or three bedrooms; he didn’t have a regular cell phone, and couldn’t afford regular Internet. He didn’t have a car and was dependent on workers comp for his monthly income and medical care. His physical condition didn’t make driving safe for him, but he didn’t own a car anymore.
So he couldn’t afford a car. Do you deal with many cases like this, is this a common situation in the construction world?
Elan: Injuries on construction sites can be very devastating and very serious. Tom’s injury was notable because he suffered a brain injury and the brain injury affected his physical well-being as well as his mental capabilities. He had difficulty reading, concentrating, sleeping, and chronic pain. He was on a boatload of medication to deal with all those issues. So I would say that for Tom, on a scale of 1 to 100, he was 150 in terms of the severity of the injury. A lot of people can recover to some extent and go back to work– it could be a long time but at some point in their journey after the accident they’re able to resume most of their activities — Tom was not that type of person. He had a permanent disability that would last the rest of his life.
One of the peculiarities of traumatic brain injury is that you look normal. You can’t tell by looking at someone, or even speaking with them, that they have a problem. But the problem manifests itself, every day in the small details of living — remembering something like a phone number. What did I do yesterday? Am I supposed to eat now? How do I take all my medication regularly? So it affects every part of your life every single day.
What were the primary legal and factual issues that arose in the case when you were presenting it?
Elan: One of the interesting things about the case was that it was an unwitnessed accident. No one was around when he fell even though the accident was immediately reported. Another interesting feature of the case that made things difficult was that his injuries didn’t manifest themselves right away, they took place over a long period, especially the cognitive changes that he had as a result of this traumatic brain injury. So it wasn’t on day one or two that everything was apparent. His injuries took time to reveal the magnitude of the harm he suffered.
There were issues in terms of proving the case against the defendants in the case — New York has very strong provisions protecting workers on construction sites. One of those provisions is a requirement by owners and contractors to ensure that the workplace and walking surfaces are not slippery. So in our situation, we were able to prove that there was a slippery condition–an oil-slicked concrete floor that was unsafe.
How did the condition become present? No one knows, but under the provision that we relied on to prove the claim — it was the responsibility of the owner and the general contractor to ensure that the area was not slippery. They failed to do that and that was the basis for liability against the defendants.
You mentioned that a major legal challenge was that there were no witnesses. What were some other challenges and how did you handle those challenges?
Elan: Although we didn’t have any witnesses, we were very lucky because the shop steward on the job, after the accident was reported, went to the accident location and took photographs — and those photographs were key because they showed the area of the accident and its oily condition. Also, it showed that someone has applied other materials over the oily condition to try and correct the slippery condition. So we had evidence that there was this dangerous condition, it was reported the same day shortly after the accident. The defendants didn’t have any excuse or explanation for their failure to keep the area safe.
Elan: There was a dispute about the severity of his injuries but we were able to overcome that. We settled the case for two million dollars and that resulted in a tremendous benefit to our client. If he were to manage those funds properly, it would improve his standard of living and help him enjoy life as best as he could.
Bryan, would you like to add to that point? What would you suggest when someone receives a settlement like that and what would be the best way for them to work with that kind of money so that they could live off of it?
When it comes to settlements or any sudden influx of money like inheritances or business sale proceeds, you’ll notice that everyone has their hand in your wallet. That’s why it’s important to hold off on making rash, big financial decisions. Getting a large sum of money can stir up emotions and cloud your judgment, so it’s crucial to carefully weigh your options before making any major purchases or investments. In the case of this injured client, he should think about how this injury will impact his lifestyle and finances. The first step is to seek expert advice and resist the urge to jump into action right away. Next, take a close look at your overall financial situation, and consider your future expenses, income sources, and any lifestyle changes that may come into play. Once you understand the role this settlement will play in your financial life, you can start thinking about investment strategies. Remember, everyone’s situation is unique, and having a clear purpose for the money will guide your spending and investment decisions.
Elan: I think the points that Bryan makes are really important — we had a client within the past five years, maybe a little longer, who also received a substantial settlement. The client had never handled a lot of money before and didn’t want to take any direction from anyone as to the future use of the money or how it should be invested. We tried to encourage him to meet with someone like Bryan but he chose not to. He bought a house and started spending a lot of money. Within five years we got a phone call — he had to file for bankruptcy.
So, here was a gentleman that received a lot of money but didn’t use it wisely, it went down the drain and he ended up in bankruptcy. We always want to encourage clients to avoid that result and work with someone like Bryan who can bring structure, science, and experience to help them live.
Is there anything else you wanted to mention regarding the outcome of the case and the client? How are they doing now?
Elan: I haven’t heard from the client recently, but he was very happy when the case was resolved. He did tell us that he had a brother-in-law who was a financial planner and that he intended to work with him to get a grip on things — but we still always worry about how people will use their money over time. In the past, we’ve suggested to people to do what’s called a structured settlement. It’s kind of like an annuity, instead of taking a lump sum, a settlement program is developed where you receive money over some time.
The total amount received under these types of settlements is always substantially more than the initial settlement amount because of time, interest, etc. Many clients don’t want to do that because they want the money, they want to control it, but there are a lot of advantages to doing a structured settlement, particularly for someone who’s never handled large sums of money. We’ve done this, especially with children – it’s a great way to receive a settlement because the period often is very long so that by the time they’re young adults, they have a real nice nest egg.
Anything else that you would like to add Bryan?
Having suitable disability insurance is one way to protect against unexpected loss of income. Anyone can fall ill or get injured, impacting their ability to work and earn an income. Certain occupations, like construction workers, pose higher risks of injury compared to desk-bound accountants. Yet, everyone faces the potential of illness, like cancer for example, which can hinder one’s ability to work. Insurance exists to offset income loss, and misconceptions about its cost should be dispelled. Financial planners must educate their clients on this risk and protective strategies, even if full coverage isn’t feasible. Partial insurance coverage is better than none, as it helps to maintain the lifestyle and support those that may be dependent on your income like your spouse and children. Remember, it’s crucial to obtain insurance protection before the illness or injury.
Elan: I just want to add to that. We have clients of all types from all walks of our society, Different people can have the same injury and have different experiences. For example, I can think of several clients who before they had an accident, had in place long-term disability coverage, and it’s a tremendous tool to have if you’re out of work for an extended period and your lost income is being replaced by an insurance policy.
I’ve heard many times that most Americans, unfortunately, live paycheck to paycheck or can’t afford a $500 emergency expense. What happens when you can’t work for a month? I have clients say to me, “I have to go back to work, I gotta pay the mortgage, I’ve got to pay my bills.” Going back to work in those situations is often against a doctor’s medical advice. It’s not good for you, but you don’t have a choice, you have a family that’s dependent on you.
So being able to work with someone like Bryan, as part of your daily living to develop ways to save money, generate money, and plan for the future. It’s a win for everyone if you’re able to do it.
Excellent! That’s great advice from both of you. What does it cost to meet with a personal injury lawyer? What is the cost to the person who was injured?
Elan: In New York State the fees are based on a One-Third contingency. “1/3 contingency” means the attorney gets paid one-third of the amount recovered. If there is no recovery, there is no legal fee. Any expenses related to the case we advance and we only get reimbursed for it if we successfully recover money. So for the injured person, there is no upfront cost and the only time there’s an obligation to pay a legal fee would be if there’s a successful recovery and the fees always come out of the settlement or recovery that is obtained.