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?

During his client's stay at the psychiatric hospital, "every moment of her life was documented for State Farm to look at," Gold notes. "Once I saw the psychiatric records, I knew we had an epic battle on our hands."


The Gantlet

 
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.

To evaluate McClelland's claim of accident-related brain injury, State Farm brings in several doctors to examine her, including neurologist Karl Gross, psychiatrist Frederick Miller, orthopedic surgeon Stephen Dinenberg and physical-medicine specialist Angelika Voelkel.

The four doctors are well known to Colorado's personal-injury lawyers. All four have worked with State Farm for years and have testified in court on behalf of the company on numerous occasions. "That's the equivalent of a State Farm dream team," Gold says.

Gross's report challenges the finding of traumatic epilepsy. He doubts that McClelland's seizures are truly epileptic; they might be the result of "psychological difficulties and personality disorders." Even if the patient does have traumatic epilepsy, he writes, it can't be linked to the auto accident. The impact just wasn't that severe, Gross reasons, and the chiropractor McClelland saw that day ("a trained health-care professional") didn't recognize any head injury. It's more likely that the epilepsy is a coincidence, he concludes.

Miller notes McClelland's history of drug use, including high school experimentation with marijuana and LSD and brief use of cocaine just before she went into rehab. Although her own doctors attribute the April 1998 LoDo-to-Castle Rock blackout to a seizure, Miller believes it was a consequence of substance abuse. He also quizzes McClelland at length about her admission that she was physically abused as a child by her stepfather. Miller's report stops short of suggesting that her odd behavior is due to abuse or drugs, but he, too, regards her seizures as non-epileptic in nature. He calls them "pseudo-seizures" and suggests that they might be some kind of subconscious -- or conscious -- strategy for escaping stressful situations: "What are being called seizures may, in fact, only be dissociative episodes primarily related to the repeated trauma of her youth."

It's possible, Miller writes, that "Ms. McClelland may not be reporting her pre-accident drug history accurately." In his opinion, her fundamental problem is depression, a profound depression "aggravated by having been told that she is brain-injured and impaired." Her complaints of persistent pain "are likely the product of that depression."

Voelkel's and Dinenberg's reports follow similar lines. (Dinenberg is blunt: "The patient's multiple emergency-room visits seem to be aimed toward obtaining narcotics," he writes.) McClelland is portrayed as a malingerer, a drug-seeking depressive, an emotionally troubled woman in the grip of pseudo-seizures. Even if she does have a head injury of some kind, none of State Farm's doctors believe that the car accident had anything to do with it.

If McClelland was depressed before, reading the dream team's opinions of her does nothing to lift her spirits. "I was really naive," she says. "Every one of those guys, when I left, I would have swore they were my best friends, except Dr. Miller. I can't conceive how somebody could meet you, talk to you for an hour, read all these records -- and then tell you you're malingering. I'd see the reports they wrote and feel stupid. They took everything I said and put it in the worst way possible."

Morgan says the reports badly distort her daughter's family history. The child-abuse allegation, for example, stems from a single incident in which then-twelve-year-old Sunserea was removed from the home for four days by social services after she reported her stepfather for spanking her. According to Morgan, the incident was an isolated one, and the charges were dropped after her husband agreed to counseling.

Gold believes that State Farm is trying to humiliate his client and "paint her into a trailer park." He files a motion with the court seeking to prove bias on the part of the company's expert witnesses. In a deposition, Karl Gross testifies that he performs sixty to seventy exams a year for insurance companies; other documents show that he earned $128,500 from State Farm alone in the past five years.

According to court records, other members of the dream team pulled in much more. Dinenberg was paid almost $400,000 by State Farm over a nine-year period. Angelika Voelkel received payments totaling more than $800,000 in five years. And Frederick Miller, who maintains a very limited private practice and earns most of his income from litigation work, was paid over one million dollars by State Farm from 1993 to 2000.

Gold asks Jonathan Woodcock, the neurologist who first evaluated McClelland for her own insurance company, to review the dream team's findings. Woodcock writes a caustic rebuttal report, challenging the relevancy of the speculations about child abuse and the defense doctors' harping on McClelland's contradictory statements about herself. "Paradoxically, I would agree that Ms. McClelland at times is unreliable," he writes. "One of the principal reasons is that she had a brain injury."

As for her seizures, Spitz agrees that some of the behavior McClelland manifested while in the psychiatric hospital might qualify as "pseudo-seizures," but that doesn't negate her underlying condition, which has been documented through extensive neurological testing. "Nothing is 100 percent," he says. "But I am much more than 50 percent convinced that she had a significant head injury and epileptic seizures."

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