In This Case, It’s No Cliché

Michael Nelson really does feel his clients' pain: He recovered from a brain injury himself

Published in 2009 Washington Super Lawyers Magazine

Michael Nelson never saw what hit him.

One minute the college sophomore was happily driving down Interstate-90 after a ski trip; "the next thing I remember it was three weeks later."

His Volkswagen Bug's head-on collision in 1970 with a drunk driver behind the wheel of a pickup camper not only left him with brain and orthopedic injuries, it also set the course of his legal career. Forty years later, the personal injury attorney at Nelson Langer Engle has become known for his unique market niche: brain injury representation.

Plenty of attorneys handle brain injury cases, of course, but his experience and amazing recovery have made him a uniquely effective advocate, since he realizes the suits are about more than money.

"Your first goal is to become an advocate for your client's brain health. That means you've got to go to battle with the medical system," which, he says, is often not equipped to treat brain injury. In Washington, few treatment programs are available. In addition, many HMOs are reluctant to diagnose a brain injury because of the additional expenses involved.

The cases are challenging. "If somebody's got broken bones or they can't walk, you have a case that is easier to represent or sell. A brain injury is invisible and quite subtle; therefore it's more difficult to communicate."

Advances in medical imaging make it easier to show physical injuries, but not the resulting mental and emotional effects. As a result, Nelson spends a great deal of time educating others in the courtroom—and it pays off. He's never lost a brain injury case, and he usually gets the settlement he is looking for.

His biggest victory may have come outside the courtroom, however; at press time the governor was expected to sign the Zackery Lystedt law, inspired by a case Nelson is handling in which 13-year-old Zackery was allowed to keep playing in a middle school football game after sustaining an injury that turned out to be a concussion.

"There's no way, after a concussion, he should have been put back in. He won the game for his team, [but] the result was that he really lost his brain," Nelson says.

Nelson says there are generally accepted standards that call for medical clearance before a player who shows signs of a concussion may return to play. But the Zackery Lystedt bill was created to add the force of law.

Two years after his injury, Zackery can speak but not walk. His legal case is ongoing. "The sadness in the situation," says Nelson, "is that it was entirely preventable."

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