Seat Belt Failure during Car Accident - Confidential Settlement with General Motors
Life as you know it can change in a split second. Felipe Rojas knows that better than most of us.
Felipe had a beautiful family. A son and a daughter, a beautiful wife he had been married to for 13 wonderful years.
On Oct. 24, 2003, everything changed.
It started out as a great day. It was just a week before Halloween. And it was his daughter Anna's 13th birthday. She wanted to go bowling with her friends. So Felipe and his wife took their two children and their daughter's two friends, a 10-year-old boy and a young girl named Sierra Russell, to a bowling alley in Irvine. It was about 7 p.m. and their vehicle was traveling north on the 405 (San Diego) Freeway in Irvine, California near the Jamboree Road exit when a drunk driver side swiped them.
"I don't remember much of what happened or how it all happened," Felipe says.
But when he woke up it was close to Christmas. His wife died in the crash and had been buried. The 10-year-old boy had also died in the collision. But his two children were alive.
Felipe learned that his seatbelt failed and broke soon after impact and that he was ejected from the car.
"I hit a tree on the side of the road and suffered a lot of injuries," he said.
Felipe's condition was so bad that he was in an induced coma for two months. He underwent 15 reconstructive surgeries - in his knees, hips, left arm and abdomen. His kidneys had shut down and he needed dialysis on a daily basis. Felipe had also suffered head injuries and lost functioning in his right leg.
It took a year-and-a-half of physical therapy and a surgery reconstructing the tendons in his right knee, to make Felipe walk again.
"I still walk with a limp, but at least I'm walking," he now says.
He was in the hospital for four months and in a wheelchair for six months after he was released from the hospital. His in-laws had cared for his two children during the six months Felipe was in the hospital and soon after that, his parents took over.
Felipe's problems were nowhere close to over. His abdominal muscles needed to be reconstructed and doctors had to remove muscles from his stomach to do skin grafts in other parts of his body.
"I had to wear abdominal binders all the time and hold my stomach in every time I took a shower," he said. He was left with a 24-inch scar on his abdomen from repeated surgeries.
As Felipe was living with this daily nightmare for two years, the bills were piling up. An inventory manager at Home Depot, he went on long-term disability soon after the accident, but lost his job after a year.
"My credit cards and all my debts went to collection agencies," he said. "My credit rating was as good as garbage. I felt like I'd lost everything."
Felipe had contacted two different lawyers to get help with his financial situation.
"They helped me get $60,000 from the insurance of the guy who hit me," he said. "But that money was barely enough to pay the bills. They just quickly got the $60,000, gave me my share and didn't help me with anything. They didn't help negotiate my medical bills or outstanding debts, nothing."
In addition to the settlement funds, Felipe paid $15,000 additional from his own pocket to pay off the medical bills. It was around this time that he met John Bisnar for the first time.
"I had been referred to John by this other lawyer," he said. "It was the best thing that could have happened to me at that time. It was the best thing that other lawyer did for me. It really was too bad I didn't have John from the beginning."
John was not happy to hear that Felipe had to shell out thousands to pay for his medical bills, Felipe said, I could tell by his demeanor that he wasn't happy with the services of the previous attorney.
"But he said 'What's done is done. Let's see what we can do now,'" Felipe said about their first meeting at John's Newport Beach office.
At first, John was not sure whether we had a case, Felipe said, he told me these cases are a long, tough road and until they inspected my vehicle, he couldn't give me an opinion about having a case. But during their second meeting a few months later, John was positive that they had a seatbelt failure case against General Motors.
"What struck me about John is that he is the kindest person I've ever known," Felipe says.
After he told Felipe that they had a strong case, John asked him if he needed anything.
"The first thing that came to my mind was all the pending bills," he said. "I asked John if I could borrow money. And he only had one thing to tell me: 'You got it. How much do you need?'"
Felipe said he was astounded to hear those words.
"I have not met an attorney like John in my life," he said. "I bless him all the time. I needed someone to take care of everything while I took care of my health. John Bisnar and Brian Chase did exactly that for me."
It was eight months before General Motors showed any real interest in settling my case. It was really hard with all the financial pressures on me, the loss of my wife, the loss of my job and my injuries.
"I was tired of depositions and going to court," he said. "At one point, I was ready to give up. But John wasn't. He gave me hope and actually made me believe that my life was getting better and something good will come out of all this."
Sure enough, Felipe got a very significant settlement from GM in the seatbelt failure case (the actual amount is "confidential" per terms of the settlement agreement, GM is very sensitive about how much they pay out in automobile defect claims).
"After a long battle at a formal mediation, John finally persuaded General Motors to pay a reasonable amount. Besides me, John was the happiest guy in the room," Felipe said.
Felipe says he values John and Brian's support more than anything else.
"Their friendship was unconditional," he says. "Both of them gave me their home phone and cell phone numbers. Who does that? Not even close friends."
The money helped pay off all his bills, set up college funds for his son and daughter and then some, enough to make a real difference. Enough to feel that General Motors took responsibility for their part in the tragedy. At least one chapter of his horror story ended right there. The rest of it continues and Felipe doesn't know where or when he will see the end of it.
"The thing is," he explains, "I feel like I've lost the ability to enjoy life. When I go to eat out, nothing tastes the same."
When he's with his children, there is happiness. But the moment they leave the room, the emptiness spreads and overwhelms him.
"People say it'll pass, but I feel like I'm stuck in time," Felipe says, choking up.
He still wears his wedding ring. His wife's clothes still hang in their bedroom closet. She was only 31 when she died.
"I never got to say goodbye to my wife," he says. "But I'm taking it one day at a time and I've made up my mind to enjoy my kids."
Together, now, they sit down and talk about mom. About a trip they took or about how they played together in the park. They still remember her ribs and potato salad and how they licked the sauce off the plate, because it was that good.
"I learned to do all the things she did for us," Felipe says, "from making scrambled eggs to balancing the checkbook."
But he believes God spared him for a reason.
"My in-laws actually bought a double lot in the cemetery for me and my wife soon after the accident," Felipe said. "Doctors did not think I'd make it. But I did. And I'm here for my kids and that's what matters the most. Thank you to my doctors, my in-laws, John, Brian and the entire Bisnar Chase Personal Injury Attorneys staff!"