When he meets with someone who has lost someone both suddenly and violently, Derrell Dowdell can easily put himself in their position and empathize with their anguish and suffering.
After all, the Columbus native and personal injury attorney lost both of his parents in separate incidents years ago. He was in the fifth grade when his father, Henry, attempted to stop an argument between two friends, but was struck with an ax himself, dying a couple of weeks later. And it was 15 years ago that his mother, Leila Mae, who he was very close with, passed away tragically in a house fire.
Such sad and horrific moments are part of the foundation for Dowdell’s ability to relate to those people who also have had a loved one critically injured out of the blue in an accident, such as a very large shipping truck colliding with their vehicle.
“One minute they’re at dinner with their loved ones, and the next minute I get a call because someone has been hit in the rear by a tractor-trailer. It can be devastating. Clearly, we are involved with families at some of the most critical times,” said Dowdell, 52, who recently marked his 25th year in the personal injury legal field, operating Derrell Dowdell & Associates out of an office on Second Avenue in downtown Columbus.
The Ledger-Enquirer talked recently with the Kendrick High graduate who grew up as one of the physically smaller members of a large family. But he also became one of the more outspoken and argumentative in the group, which helped set him on a path to assisting others in the legal realm. This interview is edited for length and clarity.
Q. What types of cases do you take on?
A. We do catastrophic and serious injuries. It can be brain injuries and multiple fractures, a lot of sudden death cases.
Q. Distracted driving is a common reason for accidents?
A. With this new technology, the dashboard in a vehicle looks like a pilot cockpit. It’s so sophisticated. What it does is attracts the driver’s attention to trying to have access to all the gadgets on the dashboard, and sometimes that can be a major distraction.
Q. Smartphone use while driving is a major issue now?
A. It’s not unusual to have clients emailing, texting or responding to different types of social media outlets, and with that second or two-second distraction, it can make a difference in your reaction time, especially if you have a driver in a sudden stop or sudden emergency … It decreases your reaction time to other drivers or pedestrians that are walking.
Q. Will we see more and more of these distracted driving cases?
A. Unfortunately, when you get this new technology, you have pros, but you also have the negatives in terms of people trying to understand and get used to dealing with that advanced technology … In the vehicle, you’ve got to have a balance of ‘do I engage this device while I’m traveling 70 mph on Interstate 185 or do I delay the engagement and do it when I’m in a stationary position?’ So you see drivers trying to come up with a balance, and it’s very difficult to do sometimes.
Q. How did you decide that practicing law is what you wanted to do in life?
A. I grew up, it was a total of 13 of us, including our parents. At that time, if you could be the most persuasive in your conversation, you would get the chance to be the leader in the family. I was one of the smallest in the family, but clearly I had a gift to articulate my statements. I would be very argumentative and take a position and I would fight for it to the end. And those are some of the characteristics you need when you represent clients before the auto industry giants, the judge or the jury. You’ve got to be persuasive and making sure that your clients’ best interests are served. Sometimes it’s not easy, but you’ve got to be willing to fight for your client and get them the justice that they deserve.
Q. Did you ever think about doing anything else?
A. I thought briefly about being a psychiatrist because, just like being a lawyer, you’ve got to listen to everything people are going through and what they expect from you and how you can help navigate them through some difficult times. Even in the 6th grade I was awarded the highest scholastic achievement award at Beallwood Elementary School, so clearly my parents, my teachers, my sisters and brothers, all instilled in me that I could become an attorney. It was something that was feasible to me because they planted those seeds early in my academic career.
Q. Did you have a mentor at some point or someone you could turn to for advice and guidance?
A. It was Judge (John) Allen. When I first saw Judge Allen, he was a Recorder’s Court judge, and then he went to State Court judge and eventually Superior Court. We named our son, Alan Christopher Dowdell, after Judge Allen. He gave me the reality of being an attorney — not what you see on TV, but the reading, the studying, the writing, the logistics, which is a lot more complicated than the sound bites you see on TV.
Q. He said it’s not all showmanship and pizzazz?
A. Pizzazz is maybe 10 percent. Ninety percent is just researching and writing and analyzing and spending quality time with a client. Because in order to represent your client, it clearly can’t just be about a file. It has to be about how you can best serve them based on your knowledge of the law, your education. You also have to have a strong conviction about what you’re doing.
Q. How did your mother shape you and influence your career?
A. I was raised in a very straight Christian environment. My mother would tell me all the time, son, you know, being a lawyer can be a good profession, but all professions can have certain issues. So I heard the lawyer jokes, that they’re all about money and they’re sharks and ambulance chasers. She said, son, being a lawyer is what you do for a living to help others. But a Christian is who you are. So one is what we do for a certain period of time, maybe 30 years or 50 years, if the Good Lord’s willing. But being a Christian’s who I am. I don’t compromise that for a profession or for anything.
Q. How do you approach potential clients who are seeking someone who can help them in a terrible moment of their lives?
A. When a family interviews you for a case — and a lot of times these cases are big, they’re dealing with a tractor-trailer, they’re dealing with the insurance industry, so there’s a lot at stake — they’re probably not going to interview just one attorney. You can quote all the law you want. They already know you’re a lawyer and should be well trained and diverse in the issues of civil practice.
But they want to know if you can empathize. Are you going to treat them like a human being? Are you going to give them your undivided attention? Or if you’re going to get the case, will an assistant or paralegal or a junior partner do most of the work? They want to know if you’re an attorney that can actually make a commitment to the family. Are you going to be hands-on with that client from the moment you have to sign off on a complaint for damages until the case is settled, either by a jury or by doing mediation?
Q. It sounds as if you are very hands-on?
A. I very seldom do anything over the telephone. I go meet them in person. You can’t get more serious than being permanently injured in an automobile accident, or experiencing the death of a loved one. You’re calling an attorney for legal advice because they want to know what can or should be done going forward, and we have to be there and hands-on.
Q. So you can be out of the office and in the field quite a bit, meeting with clients and so forth?
A. It’s a protocol with my office for me not to send a staff member or an assistant to the scene of a collision. I personally go to the scene with one of our accident reconstructionists and we go over skid marks, point of impact, point of rest, direction of traffic. We look for signs of distraction. I’m there when they’re taking pictures and doing measurements to make sure I get an initial assessment of what happened and what should have happened.
Q. That work can take plenty of resources?
A. A lot of times you’re dealing with engineers, you’re dealing with accident reconstructionists, and you’re in contact sometimes with neurosurgeons and orthopedic physicians ... There’s the science of how to reconstruct an accident dealing with a tractor-trailer traveling so many feet per second, intersecting a vehicle also traveling at so many feet per second. You have to calculate how fast they were traveling, who was at fault, who had the right of way ... and sometimes only engineers with their formulas can reconstruct the accident.
Q. What’s the most challenging aspect of your work?
A. Dealing with the reality of the grief process that the family has to go through. Normally when they call us, a lot of times we’re able to attend the funeral, and you want to understand that each case is different. Sometimes it’s a parent. Sometimes it’s a child. Sometimes it’s a grandparent. Sometimes it’s a relative.
We attend those funerals keeping in mind that there’s a lot of pain and suffering, mental as well as physical. What you want to do as an attorney is to be able to come in there and talk with the family and let them know legally what you can do as a lawyer. But outside of being a lawyer, you just want them to know that you care about them and you understand sudden death. Because if you don’t understand the grieving process of a sudden-death issue, then I think you can come across as disingenuous. You can come across too structured or too trained or speaking in legal jargon. They know you know the law, but they want to know if you care about their situation.
Q. Finally, what do you enjoy most about your job?
A. When we attended our 25th anniversary (celebration) and my daughter and son, who are now teenagers, interacted with clients we represented 25 years ago. You can see how getting the cases resolved, with some of the parents having died in an accident, you can see their children were able to go to college, they were able to purchase a house, they were able to do things that but for getting the case resolved would have been financially impossible.
A lot of times when a person gets killed or suffers a serious injury, that person is the financial provider for the family. So when they get a law firm involved and they know how to use the law to get justice for the family, they can have a life that otherwise would be challenging in terms of paying for college and post-graduate degrees. So to be able to see some of the children that we represented, or their estates because of the death of their parents, to see them was humbling … It lets you know they’re more than a file or case. These are real people and real tragedies.
Current residence: Columbus
Education: Graduate of Kendrick High School; earned a bachelor of arts degree in political science from Morris Brown College in 1988; earned a juris doctor from the Southern University Law Center in Baton Rouge, La., in 1991
Previous jobs: Commissioned officer in the U.S. Army; assistant solicitor with the Solicitor General’s Office in Columbus; assistant district attorney and assistant public defender, both with the Chattahoochee Judicial Circuit
Family: Daughter, Alayna Dowdell, and son, Alan Dowdell
Leisure time: Enjoys spending time with his family, exercising and attending Corinth Missionary Baptist Church