Longform

Hidden Damage

Page 7 of 12

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."

Running the gantlet of experts takes its toll on McClelland. At one point, Gold sends a private investigator to track down his client, who's moved again and is missing appointments. "I'd just about given up," McClelland says. "I didn't want to go through a lawsuit. I didn't want to see any more doctors. I wasn't getting any better. But knowing how much Greg had put into it, it wasn't fair to him for me to quit. And it wasn't fair to my kids."

Gold realizes that if the case ever goes to court, McClelland's character will be on trial as much as the facts of the accident. "I never questioned that we were right," he says. "But a lot more goes into a trial than being right."

He suggests a possible settlement conference to John Rodman, the attorney retained by State Farm to defend its policyholder. Rodman declines. (Neither Rodman nor his client, Charles Goodwin, responded to requests from Westword for comment about the case; the account of the litigation presented here is based on court documents, medical records and interviews with other participants.)

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Alan Prendergast has been writing for Westword for over thirty years. He teaches journalism at Colorado College; his stories about the justice system, historic crimes, high-security prisons and death by misadventure have won numerous awards and appeared in a wide range of magazines and anthologies.
Contact: Alan Prendergast