Litigation and the Grieving Client


Litigation and the Grieving Client


On March 2, I had the privilege of hear Dr. Ted Rynearson speak about the impact of violent death on surviving family members.



Dr. E.K. (Ted) Rynearson is a semi-retired clinical psychiatrist from Seattle Washington who, for over 20 years, has focused on the effects of violent death on family members and is the author of Violent Death: Resilience and Intervention Beyond the Crisis.



While Dr. Rynearson studies the impact of violent death, I found myself thinking that many litigation clients (often, but not necessarily plaintiffs in the area of personal injury) see themselves as victims of traumatic loss and manifest some of the same phenomena observed by Dr. Rynearson.


And, of course, many jurors entering the courtroom bring their own experiences related to traumatic losses and may view the trial plaintiff through the lens of those experiences.


People suffering sudden loss may demonstrate a wide range of dysfunctional responses. Attorneys are often challenged in their work with "wounded" plaintiffs when their clients show symptoms of unresolvable anger, numbness, avoidance, purposelessness, hopelessness or fractured world view. The wounded plaintiff may sometimes appear to be suffering from a type of variation on PTSD or ADD.


Attorneys may notice that the plaintiff has difficulty focusing on the process steps of the litigation, and instead want to focus on some aspect of the narrative of the loss itself.


In addition to encouraging the wounded plaintiff to seek psychological support for the grief process, it is important that the attorney and his/her staff get some training to understand and "be with" these clients.


Some attorneys have found it helpful to attend workshops in psychodrama, where they get an opportunity to role play and identify with the day to day reality of their clients.  


Witness preparation for the wounded plaintiff for deposition and trial may require a great deal more time and number of sessions than for other clients.


For some wounded plaintiffs life may have been put "on hold" for the litigation as part of the grieving process. In other words, the litigation serves as a reason to avoid "re-entry" into the world. In the role of "counselor," it is important that the attorney help the client to envision life beyond the litigation; compensation is never going to restore the client's previous life.


Like it or not, attorneys who work with wounded plaintiffs are in part grief therapists. Helping the client face the continuum of "what was," "what's now" and "what's next" may be more important than any litigation settlement or verdict.