By CHERIL VERNON
A popular and athletic girl while at Palestine High School, Michelle Gaines was homecoming queen and captain of the soccer team. She was active in not only soccer, but volleyball and track and made pretty good grades.
At age 19, her future was bright. She was preparing to head off to Hill College on a soccer scholarship and had dreams of eventually becoming a game warden.
But her plans ended on June 11, 2006, when an 18-wheeler hauling an oil rig ran through a red light at the intersection of Loop 256 and Sterne Avenue in Palestine, crashing into her 2000 Buick.
Fortunately, Michelle, now 26 years old, didn’t see the truck coming, which doctors say probably saved her life because she didn’t tense up. Instead, her body went with the motion of the wreck along with her vehicle, causing internal injuries mostly, but leaving her with a brain injury that has caused short-term memory and peripheral vision problems.
“It’s as if my daughter died that day but God gave me back another one that I love and cherish just as much as the first one,” her father, Mike Gaines, said.
As most people would suspect, that was the worst day in her father’s life.
“We got a phone call saying she needed to get to Tyler as soon as possible. I still remember that ride, it seemed like it took three to four hours to get there,” Mike said recalling the worry of wondering whether or not his youngest daughter would survive. “They wouldn’t tell us anything for hours, but finally they said she probably would live. It wasn’t until three days later that we learned she had a bad head injury.”
Fast forward to 2010, when an Anderson County jury awarded more than $8 million to Michelle in a civil lawsuit. The jury assessed damages against the tractor-trailer driver Kenneth Woodworth who hit her vehicle when running the red light. Woodworth had not had a driver’s license for six years, nor did he have a commercial driving license. During the trial, he also admitted he “had done some methamphetamines” the day before he inspected the brakes on the trailer he was pulling.
The jury also found against Benny Joe Adkinson, Woodworth’s employer and the owner of the rig.
The jury also found against Joseph Pritchett, a businessman who buys and sells new and old oilfield equipment with lots in Conroe and Robstown — the only one of the defendants with any money.
Michelle’s attorneys alleged Pritchett had lots of dealings over the years with Adkinson, and had entered into a joint enterprise to use this particular rig as a template for other rigs they would produce and sell together.
During the trial, Michelle’s attorneys presented evidence that alleged that not only had Pritchett and Adkinson destroyed evidence by cutting up the drilling rig before Michelle’s attorneys could have an expert examine it, but that there were payments totaling $96,000 that they claimed were bribes paid by Pritchett to Adkinson, designed to disguise his role in the enterprise. Pritchett’s attorneys denied there were any bribes.
In 2011, Pritchett’s attorneys went to the 12th Court of Appeals and won — overruling Michelle’s $8 million verdict. Pritchett’s attorneys argued successfully that it had never been proven that Pritchett had entered into a joint enterprise with Adkinson in this particular instance, even though Adkinson’s rig was headed to Pritchett’s lot on the day of the wreck.
The appeals court ruled that Michelle’s attorneys had failed to prove that Pritchett had any control over the drilling rig and what Adkinson had done with it, even though the first person Adkinson called after the wreck was Pritchett. Basically, that meant Pritchett didn’t have to pay anything.
The key point, according to Pritchett’s attorney, Jennifer Grace, was that setting a precedent by allowing Pritchett to be held liable would have a devastating effect on business in Texas.
“If this were allowed to impose liability, it would forever change the business landscape in Texas. Anybody that was in business with somebody else could potentially be responsible for their acts that they had no control over,” Grace said in previous interviews with the press.
Michelle’s family was devastated, working with her attorneys for any recourse to get the original verdict restored. Their only hope was to get the Texas Supreme Court to hear the case.
Unfortunately, on Oct. 26, the Texas Supreme Court ruled against hearing the case, which means the 12th Court of Appeals’ decision stands — and Michelle will never see a penny from the people deemed responsible for her accident.
“When the Texas Supreme Court denied to hear the case, it basically means they got away with murder. They covered up and destroyed evidence, lied and got away with it,” Mike said. “She will live off Social Security, Medicaid and Medicare for the rest of her life.”
Mike also feels strongly that the decision of the 12th Court of Appeals hurts the credibility of the justice system.
“The court is pretty much saying the jury was not smart enough to do a case like this. I am happy with the jury here and our court system here, but the trial took a week of my life and the life of the jurors and then the judge overturned it,” Mike said. “I do want to thank the jury for spending all of the time on the case.”
For Michelle’s family it’s devastating.
“That money was supposed to make her life better,” Mike said. “I was going to take her to Chicago to the No. 1 hospital for brain injuries, but now we will just have to depend on Medicare and Medicaid.”
The Road to Recovery
When Michelle was injured in the wreck, she was sent to Trinity Mother Frances Hospital in Tyler, with a broken pelvis and punctured lung. The worst injury was that a portion of her brain was sheared off. She was in a coma for several months and then in and out of hospitals and rehabilitation centers for a total of 14 months.
Mike said he was especially grateful to three people with ties to Palestine — Jackie Gragg, Todd Staples and Cliff Johnson — who were instrumental in getting Michelle moved from Tyler to Baylor Hospital for additional care for her head injury.
While in a coma, one of Michelle’s arms and one of her legs drew up near her body, and it wasn’t uncommon to see Michelle curled into a ball.
“They would use Botox to straighten it, then cast it. She would curl up into a ball and spin all of the time, it would drive you nuts,” Mike said. “In fact, she got a shear from pivoting all of the time.”
At one point doctors, said she wouldn’t walk, something she has proven wrong. And later, they said she wouldn’t talk.
“She didn’t talk for months even when she was out of the coma,” Mike said. “But eventually doctors thought to put a cell phone in her hand. I could go out in the hall and she would talk to me, but if I was in front of her, she wouldn’t do it. That’s how we taught her to talk again.”
Even though she is now home and Medicaid and Medicare are no longer paying for physical and occupational therapy, her family tries to continue everything they can on their own to help Michelle stay as physically and mentally able as possible.
“They say with a brain injury there is a four to five year window and that’s the best you are going to get,” Mike said. “I will keep pushing her until we get something better.”
With short-term memory issues, vision problems and other issues her brain injury caused, Michelle has the mentality of a 13-or 14-year-old girl. Due to her vision limitations, she will never be able to drive again.
“Michelle before the accident was so intelligent and made really good grades but she’s not the same person anymore,” her father said. “Now, someone has to be with her 24 hours a day. Because of her vision problems, she will never be able to drive again. She isn’t getting to do what a normal 26-year-old woman should be doing.”
For her father, the hardest thing to see is Michelle’s lack of a social life.
“Michelle was prom queen and had so many friends, but most of them have married and moved off,” Mike said. “She has one friend who has stood by her, but the rest are gone. Seeing her not having very many friends any more and knowing she wants a life of her own is hard. I know she wants that, but it’s probably not going to happen.”
These days, Michelle has been put on a schedule Monday through Friday at home to help improve her memory skills and keep her occupational and physical therapy going.
Her sister-in-law, Jennifer Gaines, helps her in the mornings, while family friend Leslie Laningham helps her in the afternoons.
In the mornings, Michelle exercises on the treadmill and does other physical therapy exercises the family learned from when she was in the hospital. Then, she has regular “brain” games she does on her Nook™ that improve her memory and critical thinking skills.
“She plays Happy Neurons, Lumosity and Bookworm,” Jennifer said. “Then she plays with playdough, one of the exercises they used to do with her which helps with her motor skills. When they stopped paying for it (physical therapy), we continued on with that to keep her on her toes.”
She also has a dry-erase board where she writes down the day of the week and date every day three times, five times a day. She also writes down when she has to take her medicine and keeps a notebook where she writes down everything she does during the day. She also keeps track of when to take medicines on her phone.
“I don’t remember what I did the day before if I don’t write it down,” Michelle said as she explained her routine at home Wednesday. “It’s like the movie ‘50 First Dates’ but not that bad.”
In the afternoon, Michelle exercises with her Wii™ fitness games and if she has time, reads a book on her Nook™.
“I think it works because it’s a routine for me. But we change it up a little so it’s not the same every day,” she said.
In the free time in the evenings when her dad is home with her, Michelle enjoys watching television, playing on her phone, going out to eat and shopping.
“I like watching ‘NCIS,’ ‘Criminal Minds’ and ‘Law and Order.’ I want to try Duck Dynasty too,” Michelle said.
Her remaining friend Liz Smith enjoys spending time with her.
“She’s my best friend, my only friend to stay by my side,” Michelle said.
Liz, who lives in Fairfield but owns Three Peaches shop in downtown Palestine, recently took Michelle to pick out her family’s Christmas tree at a Christmas tree farm in Fairfield.
“We had a great time. She let me pick out the tree,” Michelle said.
Since bringing the tree home, Michelle has decorated it herself, including hanging her favorite Texas Longhorns orange ornament on it.
“I’ve always liked the Longhorns, they are my favorite team,” Michelle said. “In NFL, I like the Minnesota Vikings because Adrian Peterson was in my grade in school.”
At Christmas, she is looking forward to spending time with her family, including her father; sister, Amanda Stanley, 29, of Gilmer; her brother, Jimmy Gaines, wife Jennifer and his family of Palestine; and others.
Ask Michelle about the future, and she’s hopeful. She would like to go back to school to take college courses. Her dream job would be to become a hyperbaric oxygen chamber nurse, as part of Michelle’s treatment was spending time in a hyperbaric oxygen chamber.
In the spring, her father hopes to put her into some college classes.
“We will try to get her in at least one class and see what she does. I’ll never give up trying,” Mike said.