They laughed at local attorney Michael Abelson when he had his client hypnotized recently to try to get her to recall what happened in a head-on collision a year ago last September.
But Abelson says the opposing lawyers weren't laughing last week when he settled the case for his client, Sharon Dobbins, of 630 Hamilton St. NE., for $95,000 -- after winning a jury trial in U.S. District Court here based on Dobbins' testimony.
Although hypnosis is often used in criminal cases to enhance the memories of victims and witnesses, it is much less used, or needed, in civil cases. Abelson said this apparently was a first, at least in this area.
In this case, Abelson said, Dobbins and the other driver, Brian Koslow, formerly of Potomac, were both knocked out and injured severely. Neither could remember who swerved over the center line as they were driving home from work on Missouri Avenue NW.
The debris was evenly scattered, Abelson said, and while the police charged Koslow based on their initial inspection of the debris, Abelson didn't think a case could be won on that alone.
No witnesses came forward. A nurse who was driving in front of Koslow stopped when she heard the crash, but she could not tell who crossed the line.
Abelson called Dr. Mel Gravitz, a local expert in hypnosis, and started to explain. "When I started telling him about the accident, he cut me off," Abelson said. "He didn't want to know anything about it," so as not to influence Dobbins' recollections during hypnosis.
During the session, which was videotaped, Dobbins said she "saw" Koslow's car cross the divider. She also saw a young woman with dark brown hair driving a blue car near Koslow's.
"We never asked the nurse what color her car was," Abelson said. Turns out, it was blue. Her hair, however, is light brown.
Koslow's attorneys, Raymond Yost and David LaCavita, argued that hypnotically enhanced memory is not necessarily accurate. Abelson said the experts agree that hypnosis is no guarantee of the truth, that people can be convinced they are telling the truth and can lie and fool the hypnotist. "It should be corroborated with other facts," Abelson said. "Which, in this case, it was."
Judge Gerhard Gesell allowed Dobbins to testify. To do otherwise would have been to deny her right to testify merely because she had been hypnotized. However, Gesell did not permit Abelson to use the tape of the session, and he allowed Koslow's attorneys to challenge her testimony, pointing out that she had testified earlier that she could not recall. The jury decided Koslow was at fault.
"They called it 'Abelson's Magic Show,' " Abelson laughed last week -- on his way to the bank.