Plaintiff guilt is real and it can be very damning.
I have represented countless injured individuals, or their family members, in depositions where the defense attorney tries to make the plaintiff feel guilty for what happened to him/her or his/her family member. For example, a mother of a child killed by an incompetent pediatrician was asked: “why didn’t you get a second opinion?” A victim of a car crash asked why she didn’t travel a different route that day. Now sometimes, a plaintiff does indeed hold some responsibility for an incident. But there are situations when that is clearly not the case. These questions infuriate me. It is one thing to protect your client in litigation but quite another thing to shame an injured person into thinking the injuries were his/her fault when it simply was not.
I can say with confidence that almost everyone who has been hurt (or who has had a loved one injured) has some sort of guilt about what happened to him/her or the loved one.
I do my best to talk through these feelings with my clients because more often than not, the feelings of guilt are not supported by logic. Unfortunately, these feelings of guilt are very real and can affect testimony if not addressed. I have seen the relief pass over my clients’ faces once we thoroughly discuss these potential feelings of guilt and they realize they were not at fault in any way.
As a mother, I understand how intense these feelings of guilt can be when my child is injured under my watch. As parents, we are responsible for the well-being of our children. When something bad happens, even if it’s a freak accident, we feel responsible.
The recent events involving the gorilla at the Cincinnati Zoo and the alligator at Disney World have reminded me of just how harmful this shaming can be. When we hear about horrible events in the news, it is human nature for us to try to come up with a reason why this would not happen to us or our families.
“The mass shooting at Pulse in Orlando is awful. But that would never happen to me because I would never be at a gay club.”
“I can’t believe that mother allowed her child to get far enough away from her to get into a gorilla exhibit at the zoo.”
“I would have never let my child wade in lagoon water where it says swimming is not allowed.”
While we mean well, we are just trying to protect ourselves after all, these statements are hurtful and dangerous. Could more have been done to increase safety and prevent these incidents? Maybe. But we must be compassionate. The families of these poor victims are going through something I cannot even bear to think about. Regardless of who is at fault, or even if someone is at fault, it is so important to stick together as human beings and remember the pain that is being suffered here. Instead of judging, we must empathize. We must hold our loved ones closer.
Likewise, I will continue to do all I can to stop this trend of defense attorneys trying to shame plaintiffs into feeling like they are responsible for the carelessness of other people. Everyone has a job to do, but we can do so with civility and empathy.