Law Technology News
November 1999
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MIS@ Habbas, Amendola & Nasseri

Finding the Critical Needle in a Haystack

Firm credits multi-million dollar settlement to online research.

By Omar Habbas

SOME CYNICS may belittle the enthusiasm of "techies" who rush online for legal research, suggesting that the chance of finding valuable information is about the same as finding the proverbial needle in a haystack. But our San Jose, Calif. personal injury firm recently obtained a multimillion-dollar settlement for a client as a direct result of information found using the latest in online research tools.

Our firm represented the plaintiffs in a products liability case, Thomas v. Dollar Rental Car, Cause No. DV99-4513-L, District Court for Dallas County, Texas (193rd Judicial District). The Thomas family had rented a minivan from the Dollar location in Dallas, Texas, for a 1997 Thanksgiving holiday trip from Texas to California.

While traveling down Interstate 10 in Arizona, a tire blew out causing the driver to lose control of the vehicle, which flipped over several times. Tragically, the driver died from his injuries, a child suffered brain damage and temporary paralysis, and others in the minivan were seriously hurt.

We pursued claims against Dollar on the family's behalf. We quickly realized, however, that one major challenge in his case was the fact that the children were not properly restrained with seatbelts in the vehicle. If the case went to trial under Texas laws, this evidence would not be admissible. If it went to trial under Arizona laws, it would be admissible. Obviously, we needed to build the argument that Texas laws should apply.

The Research

I decided to turn to Legal Research Center, a Minneapolis- based company that offers outsourced legal research and writing services, for help. I chose LRC as my partner for legal research due to an enthusiastic referral from another attorney. I didn't consider any other firms for the assignment because LRC came so highly recommended.

As for my decision to outsource, the primary driving factor was an attorney's most precious resource: time. I didn't have the time to have my own staff hunt down the research so I turned to a team of professionals who, I was assured, could turn around the work quickly.

One of LRC's senior research attorneys, Adam Lockhart, began investigating the issues pertaining to state law conflicts in car rental cases. After locating the pertinent Arizona statutes governing seatbelt use on Westlaw and finding no cases that were on-point, Lockhart turned to West Group's new online research tool, westlaw.com (http://westlaw.com) and its then-new KeyCite for statutes citator service. He "key-cited" the statutes and uncovered a directly on-point case that was published just days before.

The case was Garcia v. General Motors 1999 WL 274996 (Ariz. App. Div. 1, May 06, 1999) (NO. 1 CA-CV 98-0249). Astoundingly, the fact pattern was nearly identical to the Thomas case, even down to the specific circumstances of a minivan that was rented and subsequently experienced a rollover.

In the Garcia case, the family had rented the vehicle in Arizona but the accident occurred in Idaho, forcing a decision about which state's laws would apply in the litigation. The Arizona Court of Appeals held that the state in which the contract had been entered into, where the parties resided or did business or where the incident-causing event occurred (in Garcia, the state of Arizona) would apply. Needless to say, when I got this news from LRC, I was ecstatic.

This directly on-point case was resolved on May 6, 1999; LRC had been contacted by our firm just three weeks later. In law and life, timing is everything. The citation LRC located would not have been as efficiently attainable were it not for the emergence of these new and powerful legal research tools on the Internet.

The end result of this stunning discovery was even more amazing. I walked into a mediation on June 7, 1999, in Dallas, with the Garcia case precedent in hand. The opposing counsel from Arizona was completely surprised by the revelation of LRC's research, which made it highly unlikely that they would be able to mitigate against damages by introducing evidence about the failure to restrain the children in the vehicle with seatbelts.

Suddenly, settlement discussions grew far more serious -- and far more favorable for our side. A low six figures offer grew until a deal was eventually struck at $3 million. Without the research, there is no doubt in my mind that we would have been looking at a final settlement offer in the high six-figure range.

The research was so compelling that I'm convinced it was responsible for our being able to negotiate a settlement that was approximately triple what we would have otherwise been offered and more than eight times the initial offer we had received. It also sped up resolution of the case. We settled within just one week of the disclosure of the research found by LRC.

It turned me into a true believer of the power of online research and outsourcing! These new research tools can dramatically improve the work product you generate for clients. In the right circumstances and in the hands of the right experts, they might also generate similar results for your firm and your clients.

Omar Habbas is managing partner of Habbas, Amendola & Nasseri, a San Jose, Calif. personal injury firm.

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