Impact of COVID-19 on the Personal Injury Process
Patrick Wooten of Schwartz & Associates
Susan Barfield (00:02):
Hello, everyone. Thanks so much for joining another Case Works stream. I’m super excited to have Patrick Wooten here spending a little bit of time with us. And I thought I would just introduce him and share a little bit about his background and then hit the ground running.
Susan Barfield (00:20):
Patrick is the managing partner and chief operating officer for Richard Schwartz & Associates in Mississippi. Patrick is not just an attorney and has won a lot of awards, and so really excited, has won a lot of awards, but I thought I would share just a few. Patrick has won the Best of the Best Top 10 Personal Injury Attorneys in Mississippi, won that in 2020 and 2021. He’s also been awarded the Distinguished Martindale-Hubbell Award, along with the 10 Best Personal Injury Attorneys in Mississippi for Exceptional Outstanding Client Service. That’s super exciting, Patrick.
Susan Barfield (00:58):
So thank you again for taking time to connect with us. And I’m excited to all the questions I have in store, but why don’t we just start off a little bit talking about, share a little bit about yourself and about the Richard Schwartz & Associates law firm.
Patrick Wooten (01:14):
No, absolutely. Thank you so much for having me. Excited for this opportunity. But you hit the nail on the head, managing partner and chief operating officer here at the law firm. Have been a member of the firm for 20 years, which is hard to believe, long time, interesting path to get to the personal injury side. Graduated from Mississippi College Law School, which is what brought me to Mississippi. As we were talking beforehand, I’m not a native to this state, although I’ve fallen in love with it and have now been here for 30 years.
Patrick Wooten (01:44):
But graduated law school and did insurance defense work. That’s what I did. I was one of those guys who was billing every six minutes of the day and representing the insurance company. And enjoyed the firms, actually worked for a few different defense firms during my time and got to do workers’ comp defense, auto defense, med malpractice defense, PR defense, products liability. So did a variety of things, which was very interesting, and then literally one day Richard Schwartz calls my cell phone and says, “I have an opening. An insurance adjuster told me I should hire you. I want to talk.” And then we talked for a number of months and then I started, and have been on this path representing personal injury clients now for more than 20 years and absolutely love what we’re doing.
Susan Barfield (02:30):
That’s so interesting. So 20 years ago, got a call from Richard Schwartz. When did you decide that you wanted to become an attorney and then what attracted you to the personal injury law?
Patrick Wooten (02:40):
Absolutely. So went to Appalachian State University, go Mountaineers, love them. Was an Army ROTC scholarship winner, because my father was a career military officer. So really, I thought my path in life would be to follow my father’s footsteps and be a career military officer. A good Lord didn’t think that was the path for me that I got slotted as reserves versus active duty.
Patrick Wooten (03:04):
So like a lot of college students, I had to make that decision. Do I start interviewing for jobs or do I continue to go to school? I love the law. I actually love politics. And so ultimately on a Monday, a signed up to take the LSAT on a Saturday, and took the LSAT and did fairly well and started applying to law schools and got into a few of them across the country. Because I really applied from schools all the way from California to Florida and everywhere in between and ultimately chose Mississippi College, which is a small private law school, simply because it was in the state capital and I could be involved in politics, which I was all throughout the nineties. And that’s what led me to the law.
Susan Barfield (03:50):
Yeah. Well what’s interesting is that, not only for this firm that you’re practicing attorney, but you’re also the chief operating officer, so you got a lot on your plate.
Patrick Wooten (04:03):
I stay busy.
Susan Barfield (04:05):
Yeah. So we have that in common, both, just backgrounds and operations and such, but what does a typical day look like for you?
Patrick Wooten (04:12):
Wow, that’s amazing. They’re kind of all the same and all different at the same point, of course. Always focused on the numbers of being the largest personal injury law firm in the state of Mississippi. So trying to make sure that our call center is up to speed and that we’re answering the hundreds, if not thousands of phone calls we get every day. So focused on that. I thankfully am blessed with a wonderful team here at the firm, with our CFO who’s been with us for a number of years. So thankfully he watches the dollars and does a great job with that. And our director of marketing and strategy, she does a fabulous job for us. But it is, it’s lots of meetings, lots of conversations with Richard and I, and then we also have four other partners at the law firm. So having conversations with them and just keeping them in the loop.
Patrick Wooten (05:02):
So it’s a lot of report driven nowadays versus 20 years ago when I started. There’s a lot more reporting that I’m looking at every day to track productivity of the staff and of our attorneys and to make sure cases are moving in the right direction. But at the same point, always looking for the next best thing to help maximize efficiency, whether that’s a new case management system or phone system, talking to our CFO about our accounting systems, our HR director, when we start talking about HR platforms and how to make it easier for people to track their time off and clocking in and out. So it spreads the gamut all day long of the issues that come into play. And then I really still enjoy talking to clients. So I do want to keep interfacing with our clients as much as I can just to kind of get a pulse to how they are viewing what our team is doing here on behalf of their cases.
Susan Barfield (06:00):
Yeah. It’s pretty much operations is, you were talking about just, and that’s what we do here at Case Works. Reports and metrics is certainly what drives operations and then talking about efficiencies, even you can shave a couple of minutes off of a specific task or whatever the case may be. If you’re looking at thousands of cases and as you said, high volume calls, it just really makes a difference. What type of personal injury cases are you most passionate about?
Patrick Wooten (06:35):
Yeah, that’s a great question. Of course, at the firm, we handle everything. We’ve got a worker’s comp division, these normal PI cases, we even have a mass tort division as well, social security. But what I like and I actually was talking to a mama today are cases involving children. I think I’ve probably handled as many, if not more cases involving children than the other attorneys in the office. And being a father and being a little league coach for soccer and baseball and softball just really have enjoyed children, just want to make sure they’re protected. So really those are the cases that I’ve always just been drawn to, to make sure that we are taking care of the children and that there’s going to be money for there in the future to compensate them for an injury that they sustained.
Susan Barfield (07:18):
Yeah. And what would you say the types of cases that, the ones that children are involved are the ones, the types of cases that your firm is taking?
Patrick Wooten (07:27):
Yeah, of course you get the ones where they’re a passenger in a car wreck case. So that’s primarily what we get, but you get other ones where they’re involved in an incident at school. We’ve had that, or a lot of premises cases involving children. We actually give more of those and those are very challenging in, and of themself just A, because of the law in Mississippi makes a premises case very difficult to begin with. But you know, the store’s always going to look for, was the parent failing in their duties? But so kind of look at all those avenues that come in, but primarily it’s going to be an auto case or as I say, a child on a bicycle or a pedestrian case, dark case, as they call it. So those are all ones that we that we handle and unfortunately, a bike case or a dark case where they’re running out can have some catastrophic injuries.
Susan Barfield (08:15):
Right. Let’s assume people are pretty honest and forthcoming. What are some of the hidden landmines out there and personal injury cases where someone may unintentionally hurt their case?
Patrick Wooten (08:31):
Social media. Hands down, it is social media. You know, that people are such intertwined with Facebook and Instagram and Twitter, and that they may simply, their lives are on public display. So they may put something on there or may show photos that they’ve gone on vacation. So that’s really the biggest thing in the course of the insurance defense world has zeroed in on that. So in discovery responses and in depositions, they are always asking about social media. So I think that is a area where you have to have a conversation immediately with your client to address going, “Hey, if you’ve got social media, you need to A, make sure it’s locked down, that your privacy filters are in place,” and tell them that the insurance company and that investigators for the insurance company are going to be digging to find that information in an effort to be able to deny or delay or reduce the value of their case.
Susan Barfield (09:34):
And what would you say the percentage of cases that you’ve had where people unintentionally hurt their own cases because of social media?
Patrick Wooten (09:43):
I would say honestly, in my experience and in hearing stories from the other attorneys in the firm, I think it’s at least one out of every five that comes back and that somebody has put something on social media. Whether it’s a picture that they were at a birthday party or at a sporting event, or just said, “Hey, having a good day today,” shortly after the wreck. And then they ultimately go get other treatment that unintentionally comes back to harm them. So, and they don’t know. I mean, it’s just one of those things that people don’t think about and don’t realize that the insurance company is there trying to find a reason to give less money to them.
Susan Barfield (10:25):
Right. Yeah. No, that certainly makes sense. What is the most frequent problem you encounter when it comes to managing client expectations? And you said in the beginning, it’s great to level set and to manage that right out of the very beginning.
Patrick Wooten (10:43):
Yeah. It is. Unfortunately, there’s lots of people who advertise on TV, we advertise on TV, and we are going to advertise the cases where we’re getting huge settlements or huge verdicts. So I [inaudible 00:10:57], so I have conversations with clients all the time and my time here, I’ve settled a case for $200. I’ve settled a case for seven figures. All over the map. People see amounts on TV, so they certainly get that in their head or my favorite or, well, my cousin’s sister’s friend got so much money for a case and they didn’t even treat. They got $50,000 and they never even went to the doctor. And so you then have to try to dig down to say, “Okay, let’s talk about your case, because I don’t know about that case, because that could have been in a completely different venue.” The fact they could have been hit by an 18 wheeler where you were hit by somebody who has a minimal limit policy in this decision [crosstalk 00:11:41] $25,000.
Patrick Wooten (11:40):
So a lot of it is just people hear from shade tree lawyers, so to speak of, “Oh, your case should be worth this much,” or through television, which is a blessing and a curse. It certainly helps make our phones ring. And people know us, they know our tagline, they know who we are across this state, but they also see the huge numbers that we advertise. So they are familiar with those and not necessarily familiar with a $10,000 settlement or an $18,000 settlement.
Susan Barfield (12:12):
Right. I think you bring up a good point. I think people make decisions to hire attorneys based off of what they’ve seen on TV and you’re not getting into the intricacies of every case on TV. You’re talking about high level in the verdicts that you’ve won and the success, or they’re looking up reviews and looking your website on online. So I’m just curious to understand, what do you think your firm does to really differentiate you from other firms in Mississippi?
Patrick Wooten (12:42):
I think that’s a great question. I think one, we’ve been doing a long time, 40 years, the firm’s been in existence. And so we’ve grown to be the biggest personal injury firm. And I think it’s A, our footprint. We have four offices across the state of Mississippi from the very northeastern corner of the state, to down to southern Mississippi, as well as Jackson where our home office is. And as you and I were talking about, did a ribbon cutting in Meridian, Mississippi for our office over there today. So I think that helps is that we are located in the communities where our clients are situated and can cover the vast majority of the state.
Patrick Wooten (13:17):
And then we have the resources. I mean being 23 attorneys and 130 staff, we have all the resources and the network to be able to work with experts, to be able to hire that accident reconstructionist, be able to file suit and go toe to toe with an insurance company. Because that’s what they’re hoping, is that through that litigation process, which takes so long and is so expensive, that either A, they can just wear down the client or even wear down the attorney to make it so expensive that an attorney or a law firm just can’t afford to continue to front all of those costs. And we’ve had a case where our expenses were a quarter of a million dollars, ultimately we settled that case for $4 million, but it was about a four and a half year battle and we had the ability to do that. So that’s a big challenge, I think for a lot of law firms and just the time and manpower that you deal with. So it’s really important to be able to… It’s a marathon.
Patrick Wooten (14:24):
Like every attorney tells that client, it’s a marathon and it’s not a sprint. Whereas the insurance company’s hoping that the client gets tired of the marathon.
Susan Barfield (14:36):
Patrick Wooten (14:37):
[crosstalk 00:14:37] takes that calls out and says time out and says, “I don’t care what they’re offering, just take it.” And so the key to that is really, as you hit, is establishing that rapport early on and really explaining the legal process to everybody. Because as you know, we’re in a very, hey, I want it now. I want it now, fast food, and clients don’t understand. But guess what? Your case isn’t going to settle in a month or two, you’ve got to get well, we’ve got to collect your bills and records, often we’ve got to put together a settlement demand package.
Patrick Wooten (15:07):
Let’s have that talk where we can find the golden nugget on your case so that the insurance company’s just not looking at you as Joe Client who was rear-ended and went to the emergency room and had chiropractic treatment or physical therapy for six weeks. It’s like, well, did you miss your granddaughter’s ballet recital because you couldn’t go? Or did you miss a family friend’s wedding because of the injury? So you’ve always got to find that golden nugget to differentiate your case from the thousands that the insurance company gets. And insurance adjusters have hundreds of cases. So anything you can do to put that spotlight on yours to make it different is a huge, huge factor when it comes to cases.
Susan Barfield (15:49):
Yeah. And you said something, going back to setting expectations, clients, the first thing they want to know is, well, how long is it going to take to resolve this case, and how much money am I going to make? And I think COVID has really elongated that process. And as another whole level of barriers and obstacles that we’re seeing, even as, you mentioned, medical records and just the ability we’ve noticed in the cases that we’re working up and ordering medical records. That turnaround time is doubled, if not tripled due to the low staff in the medical records department. Are you guys seeing that same issues?
Patrick Wooten (16:28):
Unfortunately, we are. It really got really slow last year and the first half of this year. Mississippi is a state that’s wide open, one of those Southern states that’s wide open. So it’s improved in the back half of this year with regard to the timeliness of getting medical records. But yeah, and you hit the nail the head. Getting a client to understand, that guess what? You went to ABC hospital, but it’s actually not ABC hospital that’s going to give us those records. This third party that’s actually getting the records from the hospital and then they’re going to send us an invoice, and then we’re going to pay that invoice and then we’ll download the records off the portal. So there’s just so many things in the background that clients don’t understand how the process works, but yeah, it’s actually, it’s been challenging for sure.
Patrick Wooten (17:20):
And that’s what I’ve always told our staff. It’s the way getting the records has slowed down, is really just a wave. So that wave turns around and ultimately crashes with the number of demand packages you can put together other because when COVID hit well, we were still dealing with the records from 2019 and the early part of 2020. Now it’s the records in the back half of last year and the first half of this year where you really had, people had gone home, working from home, which a lot of folks weren’t prepared to do in the state of Mississippi.
Susan Barfield (17:54):
Patrick Wooten (17:55):
Susan Barfield (17:57):
The ramifications that you’ve seen and how your firm has been impacted by COVID, have you started to see things improving or are they still the same as it’s been last year and as it relates to settling cases and court and hearing dates and all of that?
Patrick Wooten (18:14):
Yeah. Court’s still a challenge. Our courts have been open somewhat, but they are now so backlogged because our courts were closed for almost nine months other than a random, minor settlement, but you were not having trial. So our litigation team, which is amazing and they do such a great job, but is really trying to fight to get back on dockets. But guess what? The criminal cases, which we don’t handle, they’re fighting to get on the dockets too and unfortunately our circuit courts handle both civil and criminal and the criminal takes priority. So that’s really been a challenge when it comes to the litigation side of things.
Patrick Wooten (18:50):
Insurance companies, it’s funny, as you know, the fourth quarter is usually a really good quarter to try to resolve cases. And I’ve done something for years, which I love. It’s settlement conferences directly with insurance companies where I travel to them. I’ve done this for more than a decade. And so actually we’ll be traveling in two weeks to go meet with an insurance company in Georgia. And then the week after that, an insurance company in Florida. And so it’s really, it’s fun. I provide them the list, we go through, and then literally I’m sitting down with the claims manager and the individual adjusters, and we may talk about 20 cases, but I’ve had an insurance company where we’ve sat down over two days to and talked about 60 cases to try resolve. So I mean, that is a great tool. And I always do that in the fourth quarter with all of them. The one in Georgia, we actually do twice a year. So I actually went in June and we had a lot of success. And then, like I said, I’m going the first of December.
Patrick Wooten (19:47):
So thankfully right now, it’s good. I think insurance companies, from our experience, are wanting to try to resolve some cases off of their dockets, but Lord, the first half of this year and last year was just absolutely craziness. There’s actually an insurance company for half a dozen years I’ve done one of these settlement conferences with. They sold their claim center last year. Last fall when everyone went home, they figured out we don’t need this claim center anymore, the 60,000 square foot building, so they sold it. And so in communicating with them this fall, I was like, “Hey, let’s do this settlement conference.” And they’re like, “We don’t have a building.” And I was like, “Great, I’ll rent a hotel, conference room,” which I’ve done [crosstalk 00:20:34]. We can’t have our adjusters come there because of COVID. So it’s just crazy. Some things you don’t think about under that end [crosstalk 00:20:45] that come into play most certainly.
Susan Barfield (20:46):
Wow. That’s that’s interesting. One thing I was going to ask you about is, the majority of the personal injury cases that you’ve seen settling on court, how do you explain to clients that they will probably never get their day in court?
Patrick Wooten (21:01):
Yep. That’s a great thing. With COVID, it’s been a little easier to get them to understand because they realized, even how we shut down in Mississippi for such a long time, I would say that we went back live, like if we were early. Our staff, majority of our staff, came back in the summer of 2020, but we’ve been back for a while and have a very few people that still work remotely, but the courts were shut down. But people understood that because not only did they have a personal injury case, they may have been dealing with family law matter or had a traffic citation and understood that they couldn’t get to court there.
Patrick Wooten (21:40):
So COVID’s made it, I think, a little easier in that people understand that the world came to such an abrupt end that we were prepared to do that. But as schools have been opened this whole school year in Mississippi. I mean high school football players are taking place. I mean, my daughter high school’s in the championship game Saturday, so there’ll be a few thousand people in the stands there. So from that point, people kind of see, okay, life’s back to no normal, so to speak at least in Mississippi.
Patrick Wooten (22:10):
So now they’re like, “Okay, why are you telling me it takes 18 months or 24 months to get a first setting on a trial case?” And you have to go back and explain, like we were doing earlier, is that, well, the courts handle both criminal and civil and under the Mississippi Constitution, as well as the United States Constitution, criminal takes priority over a car wreck case or a slip and fall case. So I literally tell people there’s 52 weeks in a year, but really there’s at best, about 13 weeks out of the year that the docket is dedicated to hearing civil trials. So it’s really hard when a judge has 500 civil cases on their docket to try to cram them all in to one year when there’s literally 65 days out of a year where they’re going to hear these cases.
Susan Barfield (22:58):
Sure. I kind of mentioned before the call, a lot of the attorneys listening to our streams, some of them are attorneys looking to get into personal injury. Some are looking to get into mass tort, but any advice that you would give attorneys considering getting into personal injury?
Patrick Wooten (23:17):
Yeah. I think number one is you have to find your passion. You can’t get into personal injury just because you think it’s going to make you a lot of money. I think you have to have a passion for helping people because it is, as we joke all the time or have conversations with the firm, it’s you truly are the attorney at law and the counselor. You put your counselor hat on a lot of times when you’re dealing with a personal injury client, because they’re worried about how they’re going to pay their light bill because they’re off of work or their only car was damaged in the adverse insurance company is dragging their feet, and so they’re wondering how they’re going to get their kids to school and so forth. So you have to be prepared to understand that besides the law aspect of it, you’ve got to be able to be empathetic and step in to be a counselor and explain to them you’re fighting for them, but you’re not a magician.
Patrick Wooten (24:06):
And unfortunately you can’t make the insurance company do something, but you have to understand that this has a true impact on their lives. So you have to be passionate about it.
Patrick Wooten (24:16):
And it’s a darn tough market. I mean, Mississippi’s tough. About 20% of drivers are uninsured in the state of Mississippi, even though we do have mandatory liability insurance. So you think about that, of you get cases in the door and it looks great, and gosh, the poor client broke their leg and then you turn around and realize that the adverse has no insurance and your client of course doesn’t have any insurance. And then you’re having to have this whole hard conversation with them that there’s no recovery to be had. So passion is priority, number one, and just a zeal, because it is one where you’re going to take phone calls from clients seven days a week.
Patrick Wooten (24:56):
So if you want an eight to five job, being a personal injury attorney is not an eight to five job. You are going to have to deal with it 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, 365 days a year. We get clients who call us on Thanksgiving day. We’re going to have clients who call us on Christmas day. You have to be available all the time.
Patrick Wooten (25:17):
And then mass torts, which we do have a mass tort division is different. The key there is really identifying what is a mass tort. Look at the science kind of see, and as you know, you either want to get on a mass tort case early, or you want to get on it late. You don’t want to get on it when the wave is at its crest because that’s when everything is that expensive. But the key to a mass tort case is volume. You can’t have, hey, I’ve got one. One doesn’t help you. You need a hundred or you need a thousand. I mean, we’re heavily involved in the 3M earplug cases. And just because I was a veteran, so we had a passion for that, because I actually deployed in 2009 to Afghanistan and had those earplugs. So we have a personal connection to that.
Patrick Wooten (26:05):
So I think part of it too, is identifying cases that maybe you have a connection to, whether it’s 3M earplug cases, Roundup, which we were heavily involved in because we’re such an agrarian state, so we all knew people who had used Roundup and had developed cancer as a result of it and the other health problems. So it’s really the key is, you can’t chase the buck. You’re not chasing the dollar. There is an opportunity to make money, but there’s a lot of PI attorneys who are not bringing in the big bucks. Because if you go ask the random person on the street and they say, “What do you do?” “Well, I’m a personal injury attorney.” They’re ultimately going to think you make hundreds of thousands or millions of dollars. And really that’s the exception. That’s not the rule.
Susan Barfield (26:50):
Sure. Yeah. Well definitely, you talked about passion. We certainly can see that you’re very passionate about what you do. And so if there’s any attorneys that are listening, looking to maybe refer their cases, or just reach out and connect with you-
Patrick Wooten (27:04):
Susan Barfield (27:06):
… Yeah. What’s the best way that they can connect with you?
Patrick Wooten (27:08):
Yeah, I mean, and you and I talked offline. I think having just personal connections with attorneys and be able to share ideas and thoughts and ask questions too is really, really important. You know? And so I do love that I’ve gotten to know attorneys from across the state. That’s this state as well as the United States and actually sit down and can call them up and text them or email them. So if someone wants to reach out my email is PWooten@1call.org. So that’s P-W-O-O-T-E-N, at symbol, the number one, call.org, or you can always reach me and my direct number here at the firm is at 601-974-8612.
Patrick Wooten (27:48):
And really I’m happy to answer any questions, happy to be a resource for anyone if they have question, concern, ideas, love to interface with people because that’s what makes us all better. Podcasts like this and meeting with other attorneys and going to all those seminars that are out there to be able to do. That’s the best training you can have is being able to learn from others that have been there before you and have made mistakes or have had successes, and that’s the thing. So it’s really, don’t sit there and try to go it yourself. Ask and reach out to those that you know, and we all do want success because at the end of the day, we’re all fighting for injured victims and want them to have justice and the reward that they’re entitled to under the law.
Susan Barfield (28:36):
Yeah. Yeah, no, I couldn’t agree more. And I know that a lot of the attorneys that we work with, very similar to you, they’re very open to having new attorneys contact them, bounce ideas, if they have a specific case and they’re not sure, they want to be a resource, because you just got to pay it forward and there’ll be a time where they can be someone that’s providing the guidance.
Susan Barfield (29:00):
But we certainly have appreciated your feedback, such valuable information shared. I know that I learned a lot and I know that there’s going to be a lot attorneys that watch this and they’ve learned a lot too. So really appreciate your time, Patrick. Thanks for taking time to be on our stream.
Patrick Wooten (29:20):
Oh, absolutely. Thank you for having me.
Susan Barfield (29:21):