Interviewer: Let’s talk about your track record. You’ve been a personal injury attorney for a number of years, and seen a lot of settlements and gone to trial, so what are the salient moments, the “Best Of” reel?
Stephen Counts: That’s hard to nail down in a really sort of short interview like this. But a few things will stand out in my mind. Obviously, trials are the most dramatic. They’re always the most dramatic. And so, the pictures that I hold in my mind of certain trials will stay with me the rest of my life. And the feeling of prevailing against a large corporation or an insurance company along the lines of Allstate who repeatedly refused to remain accountable for their insurer’s wrongdoing…
Interviewer: I thought people were in good hands with them.
Stephen Counts: I have seen a couple of websites I can refer you to if we’re talking about Allstate. One is called Allstatesucks.com, and I say this —
Interviewer: That’s a pretty vague title.
Stephen Counts: I say this tongue-in-cheek, because I don’t want anybody to get the impression that I’m personally hateful or vindictive against any particular company like an insurance company, but after doing this for as many years as I have, the tactics that are repeatedly used to shoot down an individual’s claim and keep somebody who is genuinely and severely injured from truly making a proper recovery as a result of withholding money that rightfully should be theirs in order to get better, it just — it gets under my skin to a certain extent.
With that being said, the spirited nature of my disagreements with these insurance companies only drives me on to become better and better at what I do so that I become more and more effective against what I know to be their consistent tactics that really run contrary to the interests of my clients.
In any case, one thing that is actually quite a notable and ongoing process right now that I’m having with a case called Olsen vs. Reed — it’s a case that I had taken up on appeal. We had to take a verdict at the Orange County Superior Court, and the verdict was $250,000. And after the verdict was rendered, the defendant — who was represented by Allstate — went back to the trial court and asked them to reduce the verdict by over $50,000. As the basis for that request, they cited a number of cases — Nishihama vs. City and County of San Francisco, Haniff, Greere — a number of cases that, according to the defendant, stood for the proposition that where an insurance pays a certain amount of money on an injured person’s behalf that person is only entitled to recover the exact amount that the insurance company paid. The reason that that position is so devastating for consumers like you and me and like my client is that we, as consumers, spend our hard-earned money to purchase health insurance. We spend — as do small businesses — spend thousands of dollars a month on health insurance premiums. And the health insurance company takes all those premiums, puts them into a big pool, and they use that huge pool of premium to negotiate with healthcare providers. Because healthcare providers reduce their charges based on the amount — the money that consumers are paying to the health insurance companies. And what these medical providers like your family doctor will do is agree with the health insurance company and say rather than charging what I normally would charge for a doctor visit, I’ll charge you 30% less because I’m going to get quantity — meaning the health insurance company’s insurers, you and I — I would get more quantity of patients, and in return I will reduce my charges because the quality will go down but the quantity will go up. And it makes sense for healthcare providers like our family doctors to do that.
Well, what the defendant’s position in this case failed to recognize is that you and I pay thousands upon thousands of dollars in insurance premiums to get the benefit of that bargain between the health insurance company and the healthcare provider, like your doctor. And so what they were trying to do is say that the amount that a healthcare — or rather, a health insurance company-based medical provider is the measure of somebody’s damages. Meaning they’re entitled to thirty or fifty or whatever percent less as recovery, when California law clearly states — and has for at least fifty years — that evidence of insurance company payments are not to be considered when calculating damages.
Yet despite all of that, California Supreme Court Decisions to the contrary, the defendant brought this motion after the trial to try and take away over $50,000 from my client based on the fact that despite the fact that she paid thousands upon thousands of dollars in premiums over the course of her very long life at that point — she was, I believe, 71 years old when the incident happened — and paid premiums and Medicare and Blue Cross and other type companies — as far as we could tell, the evidence was somewhat sketchy on even how much was paid — but despite all that they still wanted to take away that over $50,000 that was rightfully awarded to her by the jury, those twelve people that decided that those were her damages.
Well, we took it up on appeal to the Fourth District, Third Division of California Court of Appeals and the appellate court reversed the court’s ruling that, in fact — and made the decision that the court wrongfully took away that over $50,000 of the verdict away from the client. It’s now up on what amounts to a Supreme Court review, and so the reason that this is important is because up to this point, there’s never been a case that has addressed this particular issue of can a court — after a verdict has been rendered by a jury of one’s peers — can the court go back in a case where private insurance is involved and reduce the verdict based upon a vague allegation of some allegation by the defendant that a certain amount was actually paid by that insurer?
And I don’t know if this is making sense to every one of you readers, but it’s such a crucial issue, because it goes to the core of our jury system. And a jury — a trial by our peers, which is the jury, is fundamental to what, even as far back as before the independence of this country, we were fighting for. And taking away that right to a jury trial is what really, in large part, prompted this nation to a revolution. And these are hard-fought victories in our court system — and if we’re taking away the ability of a jury to say this is the amount based on the evidence that we saw, that we think the plaintiff is entitled to, and we’ve seen all the evidence and there was no dispute about the evidence, if the court can then just take away some random percentage or some portion of that after the trial — then we’ve got a big problem with our jury system. And that’s what we’re fighting in this appeal. And the court ruled in our favor, and I believe that the Supreme Court is going to be ruling in our favor as well, but that’s a decision that’s yet to be determined.
Interviewer: When do you think that they’ll come down with their decision — it can happen any day, or it could be months away?
Stephen Counts: It could be months away. We don’t know, because the time limit that they have within which to make their decisions is very vague.
Interviewer: So in the meantime, has your client gotten any of the money that she has been awarded?
Stephen Counts: We’ve dispersed to her as much of the money as we have, is what we have done. And beyond that, we don’t have any more money to disperse to her. We’re waiting for the court to order the defendant to pay the full amount. So that’s one experience that recently — because of the gravity of the situation, and I think that the importance of the case really stands out to me. Any time that I can stand up, be it in a courtroom or even in a mediation in the context of an informal settlement, and look my client in the eye and say the deal that I was able to get for you, be it from a jury or from a mediator or just in terms of an informal negotiation, is the best that I can possibly do, is by far more than they ever would have even considered offering but for my efforts — anytime I can do that, I’m a happy guy. Because it validates, for me as it often does, the reality of my position, which is that if you stick to your guns and if you do what you know is right and if you don’t back down and you’re smart and you’re hardworking, you can achieve great things. Both for yourself, and in my case, for my client. And I think that’s really what gets me up every morning and gives me motivation to go into work, because I’m doing that every single day. And I can go home and sleep like a baby at night because I know that what I’ve done has been the best I can do and has been for a good cause.
Interviewer: It sounds like integrity is a high value of yours.
Stephen Counts: I like to think so. I try my best.
Interviewer: Now, will you steer the client toward settlement or let them make the call versus going all the way to trial? How does that sort of push and pull of a decision get made?
Stephen Counts: According to California law, I’m only able to advise my clients with regard to settlement options. For that matter, any option with regard to litigation. And that’s why they hire me, to get my advice and hopefully to take my advice. Mostly the decision is my client’s though, as well if as they were to settle the case for getting some of the money or take the case to trial and try and brave those waters and do better. And of course my advice will hopefully be taken by the majority of my clients. Every case is fact-specific and every case is different. And because of that, I can’t say that any given case should be settled short of trial or any given case should be mediated or arbitrated. The nuance to every case is something that I’ve become well-versed in, and that experience is why clients hire me and hire other attorneys from my firm. Because they need the experience that we’ve developed over our whole career of representing injured people.