A Trial Story of Southern Colorado

THE SAD DEATH OF BETTY GONZALES

Betty Gonzales gave me a hug and told me she would fix her best home cooked meal.

It was Friday afternoon, December 7, 2007. She was leaving the Pueblo courthouse with her husband John and son Pete. They had won their jury trial.

On May 5, 2006 at 5:00 p.m., John was hit by a semi. He was driving north from Walsenburg on Interstate 25, in rain and fog. John was taken by ambulance to St. Mary Corwin Hospital in Pueblo. He was critical. He was placed in the Intensive Care Unit. His diagnosis was internal bleeding with ten fractured ribs. He survived to live with chronic back and rib pain. He was 71 years old.

When a spouse is hurt in an accident, the other spouse has rights, loss of companionship, loss of the ability to help out, loss of intimacy. That is why Betty was in Court with John.  She was also in Court because before the trial the lawyer for the insurance company for the trucking corporation had insulted John – and also had started out by not even offering his medical expenses. The lawyer did a lot of other things that I’ll get to.

John Gonzales was a smiling injured 71 year old when I first saw him. He was in a rented hospital bed in his modest house on the southeast side of Monte Vista. With every breath, he moaned. It was 60 days after the wreck. That happens with broken ribs and a bad back when you’re rear-ended by a semi when you’re 71 years old. You don’t recover quickly, if you recover. Betty was there quietly taking care of him. His grandson was helping carry John to the bathroom and helping to bathe him. They were both embarrassed, but they love each other, the way a grandfather should love a grandson and vice versa.

John Gonzales never had a hobby like fishing or hunting. He worked. His idea of recreation was cutting wood. He heated his house with wood in the winter. It was warm for Betty and him. He sold some wood – not much. He worked 6 days a week in his scrap iron business. He liked driving the back roads of the San Luis Valley – he bought scrap iron from ranchers and welders, nothing was free. All he knew was hard work. On the day of the accident he was working. There is no retirement for a humble scrap man. He got up at 3:00 a.m. He was delivering a load of scrap iron to Pueblo.  Before the accident he used to drive the 150 miles to Pueblo once or twice a month. He did it for 55 years, since he was sixteen. John had dropped out of school to help his family when he was in 5th grade. By 14, he was loading 100 pound bags of potatoes. He bought his first truck when he was 16 years old in 1951 and for 55 years he had worked, honest, hard, tough work. He’d been married to Betty for 45 years at the time of the wreck. They raised 6 children. He was proud of his kids. They went on to be successful  His son, Pete, was an All State wrestler – 1st in the state for Monte Vista. John and Betty went to every meet. Pete still remembers that his friends sometimes were jealous because his parents were always there. Pete went on to have a career in the Air Force, then to manage all of the mechanical maintenance for Mesa Airlines at DIA, Phoenix and Grand Junction.

Rarely does a jury trial end with the death of one of the parties. It may be true that every party that participates in a trial suffers from stress of the trial, some worse than others.  The stress with Betty started with name calling before trial. Words hurt and in some cases hurt worse than physical injuries. The whole nature of the defense is to attack the victim. One of the first words the young insurance defense attorney used was “Drunk”, a brutal word in an automobile case. The word was flung at Betty during her deposition and it hurt. “Did you know that your husband was drunk at the time of the accident?” Betty’s answer was simple. “My husband doesn’t drink.  He is a diabetic.” But it hurt and for Betty it made no sense. John, drunk at 5:00 in the morning on I-25? NO! The St. Mary Corwin Hospital records were shown to her and they said John was a drunk driver; but was it the truth?  Was John drunk at 5:00 in the morning on May 5, 2006? The medical record showed there was no toxicology screens that showed ethanol. It means that no alcohol was present. The defense attorney could have confirmed her question or tried to soften the question to a 71 year old. It was an intentional brutal blow to John and Betty and that was only the beginning.

A defense attorney for an insurance company is not so much defending their client or in this case the driver of the semi and the trucking company as it is attacking the victim – the person that dares to ask for justice. And any Plaintiff’s lawyer for the injured will tell you, he always knows the attack is coming. An older Plaintiff’s lawyer for the injured victim knows that the only way to survive trial is to foil the Defense’s attack; take it away first and tell the jury the bare-bones truth.

To save time let me list the insurance company’s defenses:

First Defense: John was drunk.

Explanation: Sitting next to I-25, the driver of the semi had almost an hour to wait for the state patrol. He told Officer Chance Nicks of the Colorado State Patrol, a good, seasoned, professional man, that he thought John was drunk. Of course there was no evidence or basis for the statement. Officer Nicks didn’t believe the driver, but to be safe he told the Emergency Medical Technicians (EMTs). The EMTs told the emergency room staff and the staff told Dr. Kevin Weber, an excellent emergency room doctor at St. Mary’s Corwin Hospital in Pueblo.

To clear up any confusion, Dr. Weber was subpoenaed to come to court and said he didn’t know where the information came from but he got it from somewhere. He explained that his mission was saving lives and that medical notes, especially in a busy ER with life and death decisions taking place sometimes instantly, don’t make records perfect. When the defense attorney called John a drunk in Betty’s deposition, it was necessary to foil the defense. How? Bring Dr. Weber in to Court. But at what cost? To take him out of the emergency room where he belonged? And when he testified and Officer Nicks testified, two things become abundantly clear, John Gonzales was not drunk at the accident scene and something sinister was going on. The truck driver had tried to hide the truth. Officer Nicks had calmly told the jury that John was hurt because the semi driver was going too fast for the conditions and the driver had said he thought John was drinking.

Second Defense:
John continued to work and the jury would see a video tape of him working. He was trying to cheat the insurance company and big corporation. Explanation: They sent a “peeping Tom” to surveillance John. The tape showed John behind his house one day about a year after the accident. He bent over to hook up a chain to an old car that he and his son, Pete were moving and he walked some.

The defense claimed John was working. John’s doctor, Dr. Mark Pinkerton, was a family practice doctor in Monte Vista. He is a modern up to date old fashion doctor. Modern and up to date because he’s a computer wiz and constantly updates his study of medicine. Old fashioned, because he takes the time to know his patients. He liked rural Colorado and raising his daughters there. He loves John Gonzales. He’d taken care of him for 12 years since moving to Monte Vista.

One look at the “Peeping Tom, video surveillance that was supposed to threaten and scare John and Betty away from justice and Dr. Pinkerton had an opinion.

He’d tried to get John moving again but in the end, John was permanently hurt. The tape showed him walking around and limping. The peeper surveillor had chased John into the grocery store. You could see from that tape that the peeper was running with his camera probably in a case. The tape showed John limping.

The defense said he was working.

Dr. Pinkerton said nothing about his diagnosis was changed. John was hurt forever.

Do pictures or video lie? No. But lawyers do or they distort the truth. John couldn’t work.  He could limp around in pain. Betty was shown the video. She didn’t like being looked at.  She felt violated. Why was the insurance company lawyer’s peeper sneaking into her neighborhood and invading her privacy simply because her husband was hurt?

The peeper had snuck into John’s and her life. Long before the trial she was upset. John was hurt and couldn’t work. Her husband and her were being attacked, but the message was simple:  if you go to Court with us, we will attack and destroy you. You’ll get nothing and if you lose we’ll want our expenses. But Betty, the supportive wife, wanted to fight. Dr. Pinkerton, well he said it best, “If they wanted to know about John Gonzales, just ask him.”

Third Defense:
John had prior back problems. Explanation: Dr. Pinkerton’s answer, sure, 30 years ago – his back was nagging him, and sometimes he hurt before the accident but his pain was expected with John’s work and age and he knew John. He explained that he wouldn’t have worked for years with the heavy things he did if he had a bad back. John and his brother told the jury matter of factly that they knew that in their 70’s they could out work a lot of young guys. They knew because they had hired them – they’d last a day or two.

Fourth Defense:
The defense attorneys next told they jury John didn’t do his physical therapy. The defense said that in therapy records it showed John was faking and that John did not do everything that the physical therapist asked of him. Jake Mellot is a great young physical therapist. He grew up in Del Norte and his mother was the Court clerk there for years. He went away for his education but came home to the San Luis Valley. Jake Mellot loves his job. He told the jury that he has to be tough on his patients. Physical therapy, he told them, hurts and testified that he had wondered about John’s efforts and did write it down, but John had tried and not everyone gets better. Jake told the jury about the one note in his file that questioned John’s efforts but it wasn’t his conclusion. He believed John tried and was hurt. Once again the name calling from the defense, that “John did want to get better” was foiled.

Fifth Defense:
John was a tax cheat. That is what the defense told the jury. Of course, there was no proof, just the name calling. That sounds terrible, doesn’t it? But the jury sure wasn’t buying that.  John didn’t make enough to pay. But he paid plenty of taxes in his life. He paid taxes when in the fall he worked potato sorting. Property taxes are very expensive when you are a scrap man.

Sixth Defense:
John didn’t have surgery and it was only a “soft tissue case.” So it wasn’t that serious.  Reply: The jury ultimately did not buy this one either.

There was a lot of ugly name calling in the trial. Betty sat there and took it. She looked quietly at the jury. Her look at times said it all, a look of perseverance and toughness of an older woman who raised tough, successful kids and lives a life in the country. A look of, you can hit me, you can say it, you can insult me and my husband, but I won’t quit.

She liked the trial judge, David Crockenburg.

She said she liked how he handled his Court and that he was fair.

Betty said a couple of the jurors had kind smiles for her as the week went on. The smiles had braced her for the onslaught of the name calling, the insults, the not so subtle attack on her husband; the inferences that a scrap man and his wife weren’t good enough to get justice. Betty became tired as the trial wore on. On the third day, in the late afternoon after little sleep, at the motel she was staying in, with stress and continuing of the barrage, she was worn out.  She dozed off in Court. She told me at the end of the day, she was sorry, she felt like she had let everybody down, the judge, the jury, who were all paying so much attention, and let down her husband. She was really upset. But in the end, it didn’t matter.  The jury, by their verdict, told her that it’s okay to fall asleep in Court when you are 71 and truth is on your side…and it was. By their verdict, the jury said to the insurance company, their corporate client, and the driver, you lose. The defense attorneys tried to talk to the jury after their verdict and they wouldn’t talk to them. Instead they talked kindly with Betty, John and Pete and the women jurors gave them hugs. Betty and John had their justice. The hugs were the icing on the cake.

On Friday afternoon after the trial, Betty gave me a hug. She didn’t come up to my shoulder, I’m tall. She was short and probably had shrunk as we all will with age.

Betty and John got home on Friday night back in Monte Vista. They were tired. They survived the attack and hadn’t backed up and most importantly, the jury had told them we believe in you. All those ugly attacks were boloney. It’s okay to be you; the humble scrap man, his good wife with a great family life. They were home for less than 15 minutes when Betty suffered a massive heart attack and was rushed back to Pueblo to the hospital. One of Betty’s beautiful daughters said there was a golden halo around her face in the Intensive Care Unit.  Betty died on the Sunday after trial. Life support was stopped.

The family has blamed the stress of trial for her death. They blame the insurance company and their lawyer. It was so hard for them. It will always hurt and the questions about justice will linger. Was it the right thing to take honest, hard working country folks to the pit of the courtroom and let insurance corporate attorneys attack them with their vile spit of inference, innuendos and indifference’s? To have them attack wonderful old people months before trial, their trial. Was it right for them to be attacked at the trial in order to win?

We won. I did my job; Judge Crockenburg did his job; the Pueblo jury, faithfully did their service; but a few months later the pain is still in our hearts. This article may help someone who has been hurt. I hope it doesn’t suggest to not fight by not going to Court because isn’t that what we, Americans, rich and poor, are about? To fight for our truths and beliefs? John says it was the right thing to do.

When I was at one of the worst, lowest points in a long career in the law, the scrap man with the 5th grade education was graceful, brighter and smarter than I will ever be. He took me aside and gave me some peace. He said, David, you did good and Betty told me she thought we had done the right thing. In the end, the fight enhanced the dignity of a small proud woman. I will always remember the smile and Betty’s face when she realized that the trial was over. Thanks, John and Betty.

A Trial Story of Southern Colorado was last modified: March 26th, 2014 by David S. Hoover
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