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Hidden Damage

The insurance company claimed that Sunserea McClelland's problems were all in her head. She knew better. But would a jury believe her?

("Sunserea's a very intelligent woman," says jury forewoman Michelle Vecere, a local travel agent. "She's very articulate, and it was hard to believe at first that she could only work two hours a day. But the longer the testimony went on, you could see her trying to concentrate and remember dates and details, and it was very draining for her...We really walked away with a very good understanding of the injury.")

The trial lasts two and a half weeks. Halfway through, Gold goes to a banquet to pick up a "Young Lawyer of the Year" award from the Colorado Trial Lawyers Association; it's the most time he's spent with his wife in a month.

The closing arguments take an entire day. The jury will begin to deliberate the next morning. Gold goes home, kisses the twins and tries to sleep.

 
John Johnston
 
Never give in: Attorney Greg Gold took on a minor accident case -- and endured five years of costly litigation and nasty tactics.
John Johnston
Never give in: Attorney Greg Gold took on a minor accident case -- and endured five years of costly litigation and nasty tactics.


The Verdict

Four hours after the discussion starts, it's over. The jury has reached a decision.

Sunserea McClelland takes the trip to the courthouse alone. She doesn't want her family there, just in case things go bad. If she loses, she doesn't want to be around anybody.

Greg Gold gets the page over lunch at the Black-Eyed Pea and rushes to the courthouse, sending up silent prayers to God and his mother, who died before she could see her son go to work in a courtroom.

Tom Metier slept well. But when he reaches the courthouse, he sees his client sitting in the hallway, and fear begins to gnaw at his insides. He feels responsible for bringing her here, to this moment of judgment, and he doesn't know how she will handle it if she loses.

Metier takes her hand. "We can't control what they're going to do," he says.

McClelland is smiling. She has the calm of a Madonna. "It's okay," she says. "I got what I wanted. Now my kids know I'm not crazy."

They gather in the courtroom. The jury files in and hands the bailiff verdict form B, which means a plaintiff's verdict. Gold tenses, waiting for the amount.

"...non-economic damages, $100,000..."

McClelland thinks, okay, I don't have to pay costs. She thinks that's the end of it. But wait, there's more.

"...economic damages, $1,395,150..."

Gold's hand is shaking. He can't seem to write it down.

"...physical impairment, $21,533.99..."

The jury decides that Goodwin is 80 percent responsible for the accident. The jury holds McClelland 20 percent responsible, reasoning that there may have been other distractions that contributed to her stopping the way she did. The decision reduces her award accordingly, but with interest accrued since the case was first filed, the total amount comes to $1.82 million.

For McClelland, the money is just scratches on a sheet of paper, a nebulous amount that may some day help with her bills and send her kids to college. But right now what is real is the glow of victory, the triumph of being recognized for who she is.

"I was just glad that I didn't have to walk out of that courtroom looking like a liar," she says. "I'm not saying money isn't great. If I ever get any money, that will be great. But after what they put me through, to know these people believed me, that was important."


The Road Ahead

John Rodman has filed a motion for a new trial in the case of McClelland v. Goodwin. An appeal is likely, even though four out of five civil judgments are upheld on appeal.

"They have a difficult appeal," says Gold. "Almost every ruling at trial went in their favor. When you lose a case to State Farm, they give you no mercy. Now they're asking for mercy, asking us to reduce our verdict."

Under Colorado law, there's actually an incentive to appeal a large judgment; filing an appeal reduces the interest rate on the award from 9 to 3 percent, retroactive to the day of the verdict. Meanwhile, Metier says, a huge company such as State Farm -- which, as a matter of policy, assures its customers it will indemnify them against such losses -- continues to earn a much higher rate of return on its investments.

"If they win a new trial, then the verdict goes away," Metier notes. "If they lose, she will be paid, but she's being robbed of a fair return."

Even if McClelland prevails, the amount she receives will be reduced substantially by her attorneys' contingency fees and other costs. "People don't understand that you don't just go to court and pick up a check," says Janet Morgan. "It's not, 'Here's my wreck and here's my check.' She's not going to walk out of this a rich woman, and she has to live on this the rest of her life."

But Morgan and other family members have nothing but praise for McClelland's attorneys. Metier was superb, they say, and as for Gold -- well, they can't say enough.

"For Greg, I don't think it was ever about money," Disheroon says. "He really believed in her and brought a lot of love and care to this case. The first year, when she didn't even have money to buy milk, he showed up at her house at Christmas with a tree and presents for her kids. He stuck with this for four years when everybody wanted to give up. He's a really exceptional human being."

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