Parent to Parent…What should I do? …a parent's story
[The following is an unsolicited letter written by the father of a 5-year-old boy who suffered a significant dog bite wound to the face. The dad talks about what his family went through, and what it was like to be represented by Attorney Kenneth M. Phillips, the author of Dog Bite Law. This article should be read by any parent who is asking himself or herself, "What should I do?" For another unsolicited letter from a mom, see "Who is thinking about your daughter? A mom's letter to other moms."]
My name is Ernie and my precious son Nathan was bitten by a family dog when he was 5 years old in Scottsdale, Arizona.
I know your questions. As someone who was dog bite illiterate, I am now a part of a victim's family and somewhat of an educated novice in this area. Should you get a lawyer? Absolutely. 75% of dog bites happen from dogs that are within the family.
Can you preserve family relations throughout this ordeal? Yes. Are we going to sue everyone for all they are worth and destroy relationships? Absolutely not.
More importantly, before you read my story, ask yourself this: My child has been violated and now permanently, physically disfigured by a friendly animal, accidentally or otherwise; what can I do for my child that will assist in recovery, future needs, and give him or her the best care available in the years to come?
Answer for yourself after reading further.
Nathan was with his mother at her sister's house and this was a dog that had been in the family and has known the presence of Nate and other children for some time. For some unknown reason while three children were walking from one room to another, the dog stood up from a lying position in a doorway, singled out my son, pushed him over onto his back and started attacking his face and head. The house exploded in mayhem, and when it was over his mother was curled up with Nate in the kitchen waiting for the emergency crews to arrive holding his right cheek together with a towel in a state of shock.
I received the call at home that the incident occurred, and broke several laws making the 27 mile drive to the hospital. After composing myself and walking into Nate's pre-op room, he laid there with the towel still holding his face together, not even crying, and in his own brave, special way, nodded and assured me he was okay. The scene was surreal, and I still hadn't grasped the entirety of the situation. I just insisted on, as any parent would, that under no circumstances would I accept anything less than the best care for my son.
I told Nathan at that time, "Don't worry Nate, your mom and I will do the best of everything for you and we'll get through this." That was my promise and would ring true throughout the entire ordeal.
After seeing Nate off to emergency plastic surgery to reconstruct his right lip, cheek and upper neck, close several deep lacerations surrounding his head from the thrashing around by himself and the animal, we addressed the inevitable. Responsibility. There we sat in the waiting room, myself, Nate's mother, her sister and her husband (the dog owners) and at some point my own mother arrived for support in this horrific time. The dog owners, being relatives were very apologetic and supportive and couldn't understand why this would happen. After a period of waiting which seemed like a lifetime, we all agreed that we would all band together for the sole benefit of Nathan and his recovery.
Nate came out of surgery and endured what the surgeon said were well over 400 stitches to repair the layers and tears about his head and face. Still later that day, he was moved to a recovery room where we all regrouped and gain our bearings. Nate's first words after sedation, were "Where's the remote for the T.V.?" We all knew he was back to himself.
The dog owners suggested to me that they were willing to pay for everything, and pay for it on the spot. In my chaotic state, I replied that I wasn't ready to even discuss anything of the nature as of yet, but thanked them for their caring, generous comments.
After a couple days, Nate was allowed to return home and he was in our care. We changed the bandages and started the journey of recovery. The families went their respective ways and while it was still "all about Nate," some feelings crept into the mix.
What were we to do? Should we get cash from the dog owners for medical expenses? Should insurance companies handle it? What about Nate's needs for the next 20 years since it was obvious that the injuries would require follow up and further care? What about the poor kid missing ¼" of his lower lip?
As we cared for Nate, I got on the Internet to seek out advice since obviously, like most parents, have never been a part of anything like this. http://www.dogbitelaw.com came up on the search engine and I started reading. It was clear that I was looking at someone who specialized in this scenario and my promise to Nate reverberated in my mind: "Don't worry Nate, your mom and I will do the best of everything for you and we'll get through this."
I wrote Ken a long, detailed email and within a day he wrote back to me. After carefully reviewing his response, I had some hard questions to answer. How would I ever partner with this guy if he is in Los Angeles, and I am in Arizona? If I go with him, are we talking full blown lawsuit? Is every joke I heard about lawyers and ambulance chasers true? This attorney has some impressive stats, but we're talking family here. I need to preserve the family relationship with Nate's mother and her family but keep my promise to Nate. Are we out for blood here, and is Ken going to go for the max so he gets a new car?
After graduating from email to telephone with Ken and Mary, his wonderful assistant, I realized quickly that securing legal counsel was absolutely the right way to go. Forget Kenneth Phillips as the end all be all, but I needed to secure someone that knew what it was I was going through, and what had to be done. I would have no idea on how to approach a legal pursuit of any type let alone an insurance company in these matters.
Ken gave the greatest piece of advice: he said I needed to remove myself from the thought that we were "suing." He actually put me in my place when I kept exclaiming the fact that I didn't want to sue, due to family ties. This had absolutely nothing to do with the dog owners, he exclaimed, it has to with the core of what you are after – your promise to Nate, and to be sure that he gets the best of everything.
Ken, Mary and I talked several times on the phone and I never committed to anything for weeks following our first contact. He was always available to me in person, and some calls were nothing more than a session of "counseling" so to speak regarding what my concerns were and how I was feeling.
After talking to Nate's mom, we agreed to retain Ken. I had no cash to make payments to anyone at this time, and this being an unexpected event, I was in no position to invest much in getting the best for my child. But I paid Ken nothing, and he expected nothing. I signed the agreement for retaining him and his wheels started rolling.
Nathan in the meantime was making great progress, and as I promised I continued to seek out the best there was in the plastic surgeon's field with opinions, care, follow up visits and easing him back into school, and mainstream life. His courage and pleasant and awesome demeanor kept him strong, and not afraid to talk about what happened.
His mother and I were able to focus on that because I knew I was not in charge of suing or making a federal case out of the situation. I was secure in knowing that an expert was taking care of everything and I could focus on Nate, his friends, his school, and re-entry into a new life with physical scars.
I even had the time to set up a "show and tell" morning when he re-entered school so Nate could tell the story and none of his friends would end up pointing and wondering what happened. He told the class his story all at once one morning, and I highly recommend that for all parents. The whispering and pointing was non-existent after that, and the other kids actually respected his bravery.
This picture is from when Nathan got to visit the fire engine company that responded to his call. He had a great time. The firefighters and paramedics said that they had never seen anything quite so serious as when they picked him up. They were concerned. He had pizza and played around for a few hours shooting a fire hose and climbing all over the equipment.
Throughout this, the family bond was straining. The dog owners were asking questions about lawsuits and were getting concerned. We even found out that on the day of the incident, the dog owners called their lawyer to discuss the implications. The truth of the matter is this: Are there going to be strained relations with family? Certainly. Is there a period of time wherein the family might be positioning to do what is best for personal security and preserving one's self? Absolutely. During this time does the focus get shifted off the victim? Yes.
But also, ask yourself this: Do you know without a doubt that every need of the victim has been met and you know exactly what dollar figure that will entail in the present as well as the future? Of course not -- especially not in the throws of the first months following such a horrendous event.
What about psychological needs? What about potential future behavioral problems? What about the child withdrawing and feeling unloved or less than "cute" as he or she once was? What about teasing and lack of relationships as he or she gets older due to scarring or disfigurement? This child was on the road to being a "babe-magnet" later in life. Is he now going to have overcome these odds? All things I considered.
I met with a pair of lawyers even after the retainer agreement was signed to do a "gut check" on myself as urged on by my ex-wife, Nate's mom. After explaining the entire scenario, they agreed that I was in the best of care, and it was obvious I was doing the "right" thing in not being sue-happy or going for the jugular.
What Ken and I were doing was methodical. On his guidance, we removed the family element. We were talking to the insurance company, and researching what the nature of the injuries might entail later in Nate's life. We were doing investigations into the history of other similar cases and seeing the low, medium and high averages to what the long term outcome might be. We were partnering in and effort to keep my promise to my son without greed, slander, greed, media, greed, bad feelings, or did I mention… greed? It was still all about Nathan.
All this time, I had given of myself, but not of my wallet. Ken ushered me through the items I needed and the items he required. It's very important to mention here that through this process, I was given "control" so to speak as an in-law to the dog owners, and Nate's mom focused on returning her family status to normal. We all decided that we wouldn't discuss it. It didn't need to be discussed since we weren't after the dog owners; we were all fulfilling a promise to Nate and keeping him in mind as we discussed dollar figures that would keep that promise to Nate alive.
I have insurance on my house. I have insurance on my car, my life, and even on my medical and health for just such reasons. Ken Phillips set that attitude and precedence from the get go, stuck with it, and embodied the mind and spirit of a parent, confidant, counselor, advisor, and friend.
Nate is now 7 years old as I write this. We came home from the first and last court appearance that was required. To answer the question on how can I deal with this guy from out of state, he hired an attorney here in my home town at his expense, and I met with him early this morning with a couple pounds of paperwork that was provided. I have still to send anyone a single dollar.
The local lawyer, Brad, explained everything to me and after being on the witness stand for about 3 minutes, it was all wrapped up and the signatures started flying. All the paperwork was in order, and the judge even commented on a well done job.
In the end, I have an insurance settlement that is $105,000. Ken gets 25% plus expenses that were less than $2,000. I get $2,200 hundred dollars for time off work, mileage, doctor visits and expenses. The local lawyer gets paid through Ken's expenses. I received $5,000 from the insurance company due to Ken's knowledge in the beginning to take care of some of Nate's immediate expenses. I now have $10,000 in a restricted account for any medical or psychological needs that Nate may have before he's 18 years old. I have $60,000 that will grow to $148,000 for Nathan when he is 18 years old to assist in whatever he may need in his life. Medical, psychological, and a great head start in life that he may not have needed if his face and lip and scalp remained in perfect order as it was when he was untouched by that horrible day in October, 2000.
The family is intact, and nobody was sued. The insurance company was happy to settle, and after this letter, I am writing an email to the dog owners to thank them for their cooperation and kindness.
I did not accept cash or any other payment in the throws of emotion, thank God. I relied on cool heads, some discomfort in relationships through the process, some work on my part, and complete trust in Ken Phillips. Nate is doing wonderfully. He actually has a dog as a family pet and is unafraid of animals. All is well that ends well. Nathan is healing; he has money for what he might need in the future -- whatever that may be.
As I said to Ken Phillips on the phone just today – I thank him for all his work, and I have 11 years to teach my son about money responsibilities before he or anyone else can touch this settlement. I could have never done it without Ken and Mary, and what I did do was very minimal and painless. Everyone is happy as it was before the horrible day in October.
Most importantly though, I kept my bedside promise to Nathan: "Don't worry Nate, your mom and I will do the best of everything for you and we'll get through this."
Thank you, Ken and Mary. I did the best of everything possible. You have my permission to publish this letter on your site for other parents to read.
Ernie, Patti, Nate, Preston, Brad, and Nancy.