Host: Before becoming a partner in 2019, David began his career as an insurance defense attorney where he gained valuable experience in advanced insurance issues, which would later benefit his career as a personal injury attorney. This is evident through David’s selection as a super lawyer’s rising star and honor only bestowed on less than two and a half percent of the attorneys throughout the state. David, welcome to the podcast.
David Baez: Thank you for having me, Jason.
Host: As we do with every episode, let’s start at the end. What was the monetary result of the case we’ll be discussing today?
David Baez: The end result was a $1.5 million settlement.
Host: Walk us through the details of the case. Sure.
David Baez: This was a case. It’s a dog bite case, first off, but it’s a case where my client, a 57-year-old woman, was on her morning stroll with her two-year-old lab. So she was in her own neighborhood. It was 6.30 in the morning on July 30th, 2021. And she decided to go on a little bit longer walk than the normal because the day was so nice. On her way back to her house, about two or three blocks from her home, she noticed what was three dogs that were unleashed and without an owner or dog sitter. She began to call out to try and see if there was anybody in the vicinity that was in control of these dogs or should have been in control of these dogs.
And no one responded. One of the dogs was a greater Swiss mountain dog. Another one was a Rottweiler.
And then the other one was a mini poodle. All three dogs began to approach her and her dog. One of the dogs in particular, the Rottweiler, began to get a bit aggressive with her Labrador. She started to feel uneasy about the encounter. So she began pulling her dog by the leash or attempted to pull her dog by the leash out of that area. As she did, the Rottweiler then turned this aggression directly towards her. And it latched on to her right arm.
Immediately upon biting, the Rottweiler, it’s known as lockjaw. So snapped its jaw on her right arm and began to drag her. Both her radius and ulna were snapped on impact.
And she was dragged for what we’ve estimated to be eight to 10 minutes. It was an extremely ferocious attack. The way she explains it, our client said, it felt like her life was ending then and there.
She was screaming at the top of her lungs. Eventually, a couple of minutes later, a neighbor pulled up in a vehicle, still too afraid to approach because of the way the dog was attacking her. So he was trying to distract or get the dog’s attention. The dog didn’t budge. Another neighbor, a firefighter, then approached and also began to try and distract the dog.
Never let go. Now, at this point, after those eight to 10 minutes that we just discussed, the owner of the dog eventually came out of his house after hearing the screams and approached our client and the dog and was able to unlatch the dog from our client, who was by then bleeding all over the sidewalk, the grass. Her dog had already kind of run away. And then the firefighter came to her aid, the one that was on the scene and tried to at least ease her shock because at that moment that had kicked in. And she was taken via ambulance to the hospital, where they ultimately performed four different surgeries, the first of which was an open reduction internal fixation to fix the bones. And then the second was a second debridement, which is to clean out many potential bacteria or infection that could take place if you don’t clean the wound.
And then she was placed with an opened wound vac, which she had to carry on for a couple of weeks. She also underwent later on a skin graft where they removed part of the skin from her thigh and placed that on her right arm. She is right hand dominant. And it was a significant road to recovery, not only physically, obviously, as you might imagine with those two terrible breaks, but emotionally. And to this day, she still has disfigurement, which is appreciable and noticeable anytime she wears a short sleeve.
Host: Before we get to how you reached a settlement in the case, on a dog bite case in particular, how did the defense approach the case?
David Baez: Sure. So in the United States, there’s two different types of ways that states approach dog laws. In Illinois, specifically, we have an animal control act, which is strict liability. So if a dog or other animal without provocation attacks or attempts to attack and injures a person who is just peaceably conducting themselves, then you’re on the hook for it, right? If it’s your dog, other states or other jurisdictions might have a one bite rule, essentially stating that the owner must have knowledge that his dog is capable of this or has some propensity for violence, right, based off another incident. So you get, for lack of a better term, one bite of the apple before you’re actually held liable.
But in Illinois, it’s strict liability. So the only defense as I was going through that animal control act that you hear is without provocation. Now, in their answer to our complaint and in the affirmative defenses, and also in the answers to interrogatories, they tried to insinuate that our client somehow provoked this attack by either kicking or punching the Rottweiler prior to any bite. We were able to have discussions with several witnesses that were on the scene. We also had conversations with the investigator who came to the scene and as well as the animal bite control investigator who later interviewed the defendant in this case. And none of those witnesses had ever heard, either on the scene or after the fact, of any provocation or anyone raising a provocation that she either kicked or punched this dog prior to any bite.
Host: Prior to reaching the settlement, were there any offers before?
David Baez: So the only offer that we did get prior to the settlement was a nine hundred thousand dollar offer, which at the time, I told the defense attorney that there was no way this would ever get resolved short of seven figures. It’s the type of case that when you hear the fact pattern, when you look your client in the eye and you hear their story, the impact is one that really resonates, especially, how it happened. I joke sometimes that even on rear end auto cases, a jury will somehow find a little bit of contributory negligence. Here, our client was just trying to enjoy her morning walk and there were three dogs just roaming the neighborhood loosely. What ensued was a story that, you know, you don’t wish on your worst enemy.
Host: Talk to me a little bit about the settlement itself and the process in which you had to go through to get to that settlement.
David Baez: So one of the decisions that we had to make strategically was coming up with a demand that made sense. In this case, we knew that in most cases, especially with dog bite cases, there are limitations because of the insurance at issue or in play.
Here, there was an underlying home insurance homeowner’s insurance policy. And then there was an umbrella policy as well. And it was our opinion that both of those, even getting those would not suffice. So we wanted to make it clear and we wanted to make it known to the defendant that no discussions were to be had short of tendering all of the insurance possible. And the only way we could do that is to make a demand that was in excess of the policies and to have the insurance carrier notify the defendant that his personal assets were potentially at stake here if they did not negotiate in good faith or tender the policy in good faith. And they have a duty to let their client know that, hey, your personal assets are at stake here, you’re allowed to hire your own attorney, aside from the attorney hired from the insurance company, to protect those personal assets. And that’s exactly what happened in this case.
Host: Can you talk a little bit about how your experience on the defense side, since obviously this is a direct insurance case, can you talk about how your experience as a defense attorney early in your career benefited you in this case directly?
David Baez: Yeah, I think it’s applicable to every case I’ve ever worked on, just understanding what goes into evaluating a case. Understanding what process the defense attorney needs to go through in order to get authority on a case and what they might need to show their client, when I say their client, I mean the insurance company and not the defendant themselves, what they might need to show their client in order to ask for a seven figure check.
So you spend time on the other side and you really learn how to appreciate that sometimes it’s not the defense attorney that doesn’t understand your case. Sometimes it’s someone at the insurance company that doesn’t understand your case. So you want to do everything within your power to make sure that a defense attorney has everything they need so that they can have a candid conversation with their client to let them know what the risk exposure is here. I think that those years that I served on the other side have been beneficial in almost every case that I’ve worked on the plaintiff side.
Host: Now can you talk about kind of the end of the process? So we know what your demands were and how you got to the number. Did you have to go through multiple mediations or what was the end process?
David Baez: Yeah, so I think that the biggest or the most material step in this case representing my client. We had to go through several depositions before they eventually tendered the $1.5 million settlement. But the most important day was preparing, preparing my client… I learned very early on from our founding partner Matthew Willens that the most important step and the one that young attorneys missed most often is to prepare.
Prepare, prepare, prepare, but it’s not preparing ourselves. Every young attorney does that and they almost over prepare. It’s preparing our witnesses, preparing our clients because it’s not their arena. So spending time with our client and making sure that we ran through mock depositions that we presented her with every potential question she might find, including provocation questions.
Because if you’re met with that without ever having heard it before, it might set you off, especially if you didn’t do anything wrong. So preparing your clients for depositions goes 10 times further than preparing yourself. Obviously preparing yourself as the pre-rec… that’s the lowest barrier.
But preparing your client is the most important thing you can do in terms of adding value to a case because it’s not their arena… it’s ours, so stepping into a deposition, you know, we’ve done close to a thousand now and I can do them in my sleep. I feel extremely comfortable stepping into that room, whereas a witness maybe in their lifetime gives one deposition ever, in a room with no windows and a court reporter and a defense attorney who you feel is an adversary. So all of these things add stress to the biggest day potentially outside of trial from a case like this.
Host: So a twofold follow-up question on that. One, what is your process, not just in this case, but in any case, in getting your client ready for that deposition? Because I agree with you that for many people in their entire lifetime, they may either have experienced zero depositions or they might only ever have one.
And two, when you were deposing the dog owner, can you tell me how that went and if there was a turning point in that deposition.
David Baez: So to answer the first part, I think, I tell people this all the time when they ask me, what do you do for a living? I tell them and I’m a professional storyteller. And I say that, what I mean by that if someone comes to me with their trauma with something they’ve been through, perhaps the worst day of their life and the worst couple of months or years of their life, it’s my job to tell their story in a way that resonates with 12 strangers. That’s the jury or a defense attorney or an adjuster.
I can only tell that story if I understand their story, not with just what happened, but who they are. I think all of that adds a tremendous amount of value to a case because until then, they’re just a variable, right? It’s a broken arm case versus this is what happened and this is how it happened and this is what my client went through and this is how it’s affected her life or everyday life.
The only way I can do that is spend time with my client and to really ask them difficult questions. Sometimes it’s uncomfortable. I tell them, I’m not doing my job if I have kid gloves on and you feel comfortable in that chair while I prepare you.
I want to ask the questions that I think might hit some strings so I have my client come in usually the day before, in this case, it was a week before, but in most cases, it’s the day before and I spend as much time as needed to make sure that when they walk into that deposition room, they don’t hear a question that they haven’t heard already, and that I’m not surprised by an answer or a question that the defense attorney might pose.
The worst thing that could happen is the plaintiff’s attorney hearing something for the first time at a deposition. So I make sure that I extract all that information and that’s only through letting your client know, hey, we’re on the same team here and the only way I can help you is to know the good, the bad and all the ugly.
When it comes to part two of your question with the defendant, I think there was a sense of, I don’t know if the word is guilt, but certainly he was sorry and I think he wanted to do right, but I think there was also a sense of denial that we had to break through in terms of provocation, because when you cross a defendant on where they got their information specifically and you’re pretty persistent about it, it breaks down easily into perhaps it was a fabrication or perhaps I heard this somewhere.
And when it comes to the provocation, there wasn’t a single piece of evidence ever at any point, and there wasn’t a single person that the defendant had talked to that had heard of a provocation. So it was important to get that out of the way, and to ensure that we remove that defense from the field of play before we were able to get a serious offer.
Host: What from this case and this is a question we ask on pretty much every episode, what was there something tangible you learned in dealing with this case that other listeners and attorneys could apply either to their firm or a case that they’re currently handling.
David Baez: Yeah, I think it’s important and I know we talked about it a little bit before, but to advocate for your client with empathy first. It would be very easy. And I say this almost humbly, I didn’t, I didn’t set out to break a record with this settlement, I didn’t even know we had broken a record until after but my value was in knowing my client and knowing the story, knowing what she had gone through, talking to her every couple of weeks to see where she was at in her therapy process, understanding that every time she went to the gym or tried to go to the gym to get her life back. People would ask her about her arm, so every time she left her house she still has this dog that she has to walk every morning. Every time she left her house, she was met with that trauma, and she had to overcome it.
It’s like if somebody has a ski injury, they could, escape that and never go skiing again if they wanted to right, but someone that has an injury while they’re walking their dog, they can’t escape the world. So she has to go on a walk every day she has to go out into the world and show her arm the way it was, so I think it’s important to really get to know your client.
There’s tons of attorneys who are great at the law. There’s tons of attorneys who are tremendous in cross examining a witness, but I think for an attorney to truly thrive, you have to have empathy and you have to get to know the people that you’re representing as well as the people that you play with. I think that’s a great plan to cross exam so it’s just a lesson that I carry with me.
Host: You had mentioned there, kind of in passing that this was a record settlement.
David Baez: That’s correct, 1.5 million is the highest either verdict settlement or award in the history of Illinois for a dog bite case.
Host: Last question here and then we will finish up. For those that are listening that may not be an attorney if they run into a situation where they are severely injured in a by a dog or pet or animal. What are the steps they should take.
David Baez: I think the most important first step is to make sure that you know it’s recorded and when I say recorded I mean make sure that there is an investigator that comes to the scene right away. We want to make sure that statements are taken at the scene. Because memories are kind of fragile and they shift over time. So even witnesses that were giving statements to officers at the scene their story may have changed a little bit in the weeks later when we statementize them. So it’s important that first off there’s an investigator at the scene when there’s an injury that takes place.
Secondly it’s important that you hire an attorney as soon as possible because like I said I wasn’t able to depose the witnesses or to statementize the witnesses until weeks later and at that point things changed and so either someone changes their number or they move or it’s harder to get a hold of someone. Getting an attorney early so that they can investigate at the moment it happens is paramount to preserving that evidence.
Lastly I think photographs are key, especially with cases that involve some form of disfigurement like this case did. Oftentimes, with dog bites or animal bite cases, disfigurement is what we’re dealing with and some sort of markings and if six months pass and I can’t see what happened or it’s too late, we’re not going to be able to paint the picture in a proper way.
Host: David is there anything we missed here today.
David Baez: No I think there’s one thing I did want to touch on because oftentimes I’ve had conversations with colleagues or friends about this case and it’s not a case about the dog it’s a case about dog ownership. It’s pet ownership in general, and the responsibility that comes with that. I think it’s just holding people accountable. 45% of Americans have at least one dog, and 70% of Americans have at least one pet right so it’s important that we do all of that. What we can to eliminate these kinds of cases or these kinds of injuries from taking place, and that just by taking small measures that can make a huge difference in someone’s life.
Host: Well David, thank you for taking the time today and congratulations both you and your client on the record settlement.
David Baez: I appreciate your time. Thank you so much.