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Traumatic Brain Injuries Among the Most Difficult to Prove

Injuries aren’t always easily visible or identifiable. A broken bone can be seen on an X-ray. How the bone will heal has some level of predictability. There are standards for how long the process will take and what physical therapy will be needed.

Traumatic brain injuries (TBI) are not like broken bones. Every person is affected differently. Each case is a puzzle. That’s why TBI is often referred to as “the invisible injury.”

Boy Suffers TBI in School Bus Stop Injury

A recent settlement involving an 8-year-old boy is an example of the challenges in litigating TBI.

Back in May 2017, AJ eagerly anticipated early dismissal at school and the opportunity to enjoy a pizza lunch with his great-aunt. That lunch never happened. AJ took the school bus at the end of the school day. His great-aunt waited for him at the stop. As he stepped off the bus and crossed the street to meet his aunt, he was hit by a driver in a Ford Taurus.

All of this played out in front of his aunt and a busload of children. The dashboard camera of the bar stopped behind the bus captured the whole thing.

The school bus driver never operated the required safety equipment that signals to others that the bus is stopping, and children are exiting. That bus driver would later resign and face criminal charges.

AJ was thrown up onto the hood of the car and suffered severe injuries.

  • Complex skull fractures
  • Traumatic Brain Injury (TBI)
  • Damage to Ligaments in the Cervical Spine
  • Fractured Leg
  • Bruised Pancreas
  • Bruised Lung

A personal injury case was later filed against the school bus driver, the driver of the Ford Taurus, and the school district. Sylvia and Don McCormick, AJ’s great-aunt and great-uncle, retained Burlington lawyer Wade Harrison to help them. Harrison asked our firm’s personal injury attorney Isaac Thorp to serve as lead counsel because of his significant experience in handling TBI cases. Our firm, located in Raleigh, represents clients throughout North Carolina.

TBI Cases Require Extensive Time and Research

To truly understand how AJ’s injuries affected him, Thorp spent considerable time over several years in consultation with the McCormicks and AJ.

“Who was my client before the injury? How are they different now? I spent hours with AJ, Sylvia, and Don over the three years I was involved with them,” he said. “I often spoke with them two or three times a week. It was the only way for me to really understand how their lives had been upended.”

An important aspect of the case was showing how the brain injury affects AJ’s academic performance. Since the school district was a defendant, teachers resisted talking to Thorp. He was forced to go to court to compel depositions.

The legal team also hired a neuropsychologist expert to evaluate the young boy. The findings from a battery of standardized academic tests were crucial. The tests showed that AJ wasn’t performing anywhere near grade level, despite report cards with his marks and positive evaluations.

“Our experts included a neuropsychologist, a vocational expert who was also a life care planner, and two psychologists,” Thorp said. “They helped piece together a full picture of how the brain injury changed AJ’s life and what his prospects for the future looked like.”

Physicians often do not want to get involved in TBI litigation. Fortunately, AJ’s pediatric ICU doctor was willing to review all his medical records – more than 4,000 pages.

The case settled in January 2022.

TBI’s Lingering Impact

Five years after the accident, AJ still feels behind his classmates, a feeling that was exacerbated by COVID. According to McCormicks, AJ doesn't like to sleep alone and suffers intense separation anxiety. The accident has affected more than AJ. His great-aunt wrestles with insomnia and cannot shut off the images of AJ flying through the air and landing on his head.

How the TBI will affect AJ in the decades to come remains to be seen. Don and Sylvia worry about what will happen when they are no longer around. They question whether he’ll one day be able to drive or hold down a job. To give them peace of mind, the McCormicks purchased an annuity with the settlement and created a Special Needs Trust. The trust will allow AJ to have options such as attending private school, receiving intensive vocational counseling, and accessing psychological counseling.

Standing Up for the Seriously Injured

Thorp started his law practice in 2013 with the mission to help those impacted by a wide variety of serious injuries. Those cases require more time, effort, and resources. AJ’s case, for example, had more than $100,000 in litigation costs when the case was settled at mediation. Thoroughly developing a case and bringing it to a successful conclusion makes the work satisfying.

Fighting on the Merits

Thorp attempts to minimize the adversarial nature of litigation. He doesn’t want the case to become a class of attorney personalities.

“When we file a lawsuit, and I see who the lawyer will be on the other side, I give them a call. ‘Hey, I see you’re representing the defendant in this case. I look forward to working with you.’ I believe in cooperating on procedure and fighting on the merits. It really makes a difference. Because when litigation heats up, as it usually does, if you’ve created a cooperative framework early on, it can help resolve most problems without having to go to court.”

A Circuitous Path to Becoming a Lawyer

Despite a long line of attorney in the family (his great-grandfather, his grandfather, and his father), Thorp chose to work on fishing boats to pay his way through college. After college, he moved to New York City to help his sister manage a small retail business. Thorp realized he enjoyed winning disputes with business' delinquent suppliers and had his a-ha moment.

He graduated from NYU School of Law and joined the Brooklyn District Attorney’s Office. He prosecuted rapists and child abusers for several years before returning home to Raleigh and joining his father’s personal injury firm. His wife, Stephanie Gibbs, also had a detour before becoming a lawyer. Her first career was as a newspaper reporter. She’s now a family attorney and partner at Gailor Hunt Davis Taylor & Gibbs.

The legal profession can be intense. Thorp enjoys blowing off steam through his regular Zumba® practice. Even during COVID, he joined a group for outside classes one or twice a week for 12 months.

“As lawyers, we worry. We are supposed to worry. We check things, double-check things, and then check them again. We support folks who are often going through the worst times in their lives. It’s important to find healthy ways of lightening our spirits. Zumba does that for me,” he said.

The McCormicks remain grateful for the two attorney that led to the successful conclusion of their case. Thorp also appreciates the opportunity to represent their family.

“It also feels good to know that perhaps we helped them heal a little so that they can move forward.”

If you need a personal injury attorney in North Carolina, contact our firm at (919) 373-3390. We offer confidential case evaluations.