Yvonne Smith has a simple, straightforward approach to the grief, uncertainty and elation she has experienced since her son's near-fatal automobile accident almost five years ago. "First of all," she says, "the glory goes to God."
Smith's son, 30-year-old Carrington Miller, won a $1.7 million jury verdict against the Nissan Motor Co. in D.C. Superior Court last week against what Las Vegas bookmakers might call prohibitively high odds. But Miller himself is a living, breathing long shot.
Miller was riding in the back seat of a 1979 Datsun 200SX on Jan. 22, 1983, when another car swerved and struck the Datsun almost head on. According to his attorneys, Miller was thrown over the front seats, and his head smashed into the windshield. The impact was heightened, they said, because the Datsun's hood had been bent upward in the crash, buttressing the windshield.
Miller's face and head were shattered. Doctors at the Washington Hospital Center told his mother that Miller's chance of surviving was virtually zero. Later, when Miller refused to die, the doctors warned that the damage to his brain could render him almost subhuman in intelligence, personality and physical ability. They said he would probably be blind and paralyzed.
As it turned out, the doctors were wrong. Miller lived, and with the wizardry of reconstructive surgery, he now appears close to normal -- even after the removal of most of his forehead, other parts of his skull and much of the right frontal lobe of his brain.
Miller's intellect, or at least most of it, also survived. He is charming, articulate and witty. His two chief problems, aside from his lack of a sense of smell and his distorted vision, are a lapse of short-term memory and an inability to seek logical solutions to complex questions.
The catch is that those two problems are critical for Miller, who at the time of his accident had just realized a life's dream -- graduation from law school.
Although he has since passed the bar exam in Louisiana where he attended Tulane Law School, his doctors say that his mental abilities will never improve enough for him to practice law. His diminished mental capacity means that he will have to be content in simple, menial jobs for the rest of his life.
"Right now, I'm doing the job of a clerk, running legal papers down to the courthouse," Miller said in an interview at his mother's Northwest Washington apartment. "Sometimes I get frustrated and would like to be doing more substantive work, but I guess it's fine."
Nissan's attorney Philip Cohan declined to comment, referring questions to the car manufacturer. In a statement, Nissan said it was "extremely disappointed" by the verdict, which it attributed to sympathy for Miller. His injuries, Nissan said, were "not caused by any vehicle problem" and the company "intends to vigorously pursue an appeal."
Miller grew up near Walter Reed Army Medical Center on 16th Street NW. When he was 10, he started working at his grandfather's shop, the legendary Ewell's Barber and Valet Shop on 14th Street NW at the edge of the old downtown area.
The shop was something of a meeting place. Its clientele included President Truman and former Soviet ambassador Andrei Gromyko, now Soviet president. During 37 years of operation, the shop also was a clearinghouse for local business and political news as well as a convenient spot to place a bet on sporting events.
With tips, Miller says, he could earn between $40 and $50 a day. Now, working an average of 20 hours a week at $5.50 an hour as a clerical aide for the D.C. law firm of Banks and McCants on Eastern Avenue, Miller earns about the same amount.
Miller's lawyers figured that his potential loss of lifetime earnings after the accident was at least $1 million. But, they concluded, the most likely defendant was also the most difficult to sue successfully.
Attorneys Robert Cadeaux and James Taglieri inherited Miller's case from Kevin Carmody, who died before he could file Miller's suit. An expert in product liability law, Cadeaux says he quickly realized that the only way Miller might recover any money from the accident was to sue Nissan. The driver of car in which Miller was riding had not been negligent, Cadeaux said. The other driver was uninsured and had since died from causes unrelated to the accident.
Cadeaux says he based his lawsuit on the legal theory that Nissan violated federal crashworthiness standards when it designed and built the car. He says the car's hood was not properly designed and could fold in an unsafe way on impact, resulting in an unreasonably dangerous condition if the hood became torn from its hinges.
The problem from the start, Cadeaux said, was that Nissan -- like virtually any auto manufacturer -- was prepared to spend large amounts of money and time to defend product liability lawsuits because the company feared such suits could encourage other would-be plaintiffs. Nissan used an array of experts in traffic accident analysis and biomechanics to rebut Miller's case.
There's little question that Miller was a plaintiff who could inspire a juror's sympathy, lawyers said. After struggling through law school, he passed eight of the nine required sections of the Louisiana bar exam, which is noted for arcane legal concepts dating to the Napoleonic Code. After the crash, he failed in his first attempt to retake the remaining portions, and he flunked the D.C. bar exam. But after considerable tutoring, he passed the Louisiana exam.
As lawyers might say, however, Miller's was a Pyrrhic victory. He would probably never be able to perform the mental tasks necessary for legal work. Outwardly, he seems almost unconcerned about his disabilities and talks about being happy just to be alive and, in many respects, healthy.
"I just had a lot of faith that God was with me every step of the way," Miller says.
He has no memory of the accident. The last thing Miller says he remembers is getting out of the car at RFK Stadium before a playoff game, in which the Washington Redskins beat the Dallas Cowboys to advance to the Super Bowl. The crash happened on the way home from the game. The next six or seven weeks are a blur. He recalls awakening in the hospital.
After the accident, Miller was hospitalized for almost three months. Surgeons removed shattered parts of his skull and much of his brain's frontal lobes, Cadeaux said. It was necessary to take out much of his brain tissue, his lawyer said, because pieces of his forehead were driven back into his head like shrapnel from a grenade blast.
Later, Dr. Hugh deFries, a head and neck surgeon at Georgetown University Hospital, said he used parts of three ribs to reconstruct Miller's right outer eye socket and part of his forehead.
The brain's frontal lobe is believed to be the center for personality, ambition and ability to plan for the future. So it's not surprising that Miller's mother says she has seen some changes.
"To me, though, he is still the handsome, wonderful son I have always had," she said. "And his brilliance, every bit of it, is just locked away."