What would you do if a drunk driver ran a stop sign at 60 mph and hit your car? Your car rolls end over end. You wake up from a coma days later in the hospital to find you’ve been paralyzed. Quadriplegia. Confined to a wheelchair. And that’s not the worst of it. Your wife, sitting next to you in the hospital, who wasn’t with you in the car, says your entire family was killed in the crash. Your mother, father, and brother.
If you are young lawyer Jimmy Anderson, pictured above with his wife, that’s exactly what happened.
But if you’re Jimmy Anderson, who was just a week shy of entering his third year of law school at the University of Wisconsin—Madison when the crash occurred, you keep going. You finish law school. You not only finish law school but you become a litigator with the Wisconsin Department of Justice. And you start a nonprofit, the Victims for Impaired Driving Project, which is dedicated to helping victims hurt by drunk drivers who run stop signs and hit people at 60 mph.
This is how Jimmy Anderson’s story begins, with a line from his Gawker essay:
Two and a half years ago, somewhere in Patterson, California, a man got shit-faced. He decided to drive a van into my family’s car.
About the Lawyer
Who are you and where are you from?
I am a guy in a wheelchair living with his wife in Madison, WI. I grew up in California.
Where did you go to law school?
I attended the University of Wisconsin Law School.
When did you graduate?
What type of law do you practice?
Where do you practice?
A Day in the Life (Before the Crash)
What made you decide to go to law school?
I worked as a legal assistant at a law firm during undergrad. It was primarily a personal injury and criminal defense law firm. What I enjoyed was how every case was unique. The lawyers were always being challenged with having to learn new and interesting subject matter. I knew it would be a profession that would keep me interested.
What was UW-Madison like?
UW-Madison is a great place to go to law school. I chose it over several “higher ranked” law schools after visiting. My wife and I love Madison. The amazing farmers market. During the summer the Madison Symphony Orchestra plays classical music next to the Capitol building on Wednesday evenings. Football games in the fall. Great restaurants. The University has so many programs and clubs. The Madison community is diverse and supportive. My wife actually took up belly dancing in Madison. And, most importantly, we could see raising a family here.
The law school is fairly laid-back and collegial. And while I love the law library, my least favorite part was the law school building itself. A lot of out-of-date classrooms and a confusing layout. The best part of the school is the staff and faculty. They truly are dedicated to your success.
What were your favorite law school subjects?
Allison Christians was my tax professor and she made the topic infinitely interesting. I also enjoyed any class where you learned the practical aspects of lawyering. After the first year, you get the picture on how to study the law. But how to draft a contract? What a settlement conference looks like? How to take a deposition? These topics tend to fall by the wayside.
What were your plans upon graduation?
During my second year I was working at a law firm which focused on consumer protection and also at the Wisconsin Department of Health Services updating the administrative code to make healthcare more affordable for the state’s neediest. I was torn as to which path to follow. The work at the law firm was a bit more mentally stimulating but I felt that the work I was doing at DHS would actually help a large number of people who really needed it. Unfortunately, I never got the opportunity to choose.
When did the crash occur?
The crash happened about a week before starting my third year.
A Day in the Life (After the Crash)
Briefly describe the crash and what happened.
My wife and I flew back home to California to visit our families. My best friend picked us up from the airport and we stayed at his place that evening. The next day my wife went to go visit her family while my friend took me out to play golf that morning for my upcoming birthday. It got too warm and we decided to head home. I remember calling my dad to ask where the hidden key was so I could let myself in. One of my last memories before the crash was pulling into the driveway and seeing the rental house.
The hardest part is that I never remember seeing my family. My friend says that they arrived at the house and that we hugged and talked and decided to go out for dinner. It was on our way out of town that a man who was twice over the legal limit and high on weed ran a stop sign and slammed into the side of our vehicle. It flipped over and over into some palm trees which crushed the side of the car with my mom and little brother. It was then that I went through what I described in the Gawker essay.
How did it change your perspective on the law and/or law school?
It didn’t really have any impact on how I see law school. And obviously it’s made me more concerned about impaired driving.
Did it alter your plans post-law school?
When the crash happened, we weren’t sure if we would ever make it back to Wisconsin. Eventually, my health insurance decided it would be cheaper to medi-flight me to the UW Hospital. I spent some time in the ICU and then started my rehabilitation. I really had no idea if I would ever be able to go back to school let alone graduate from law school. When I finally made it back to school, I was just happy to return to some semblance of normalcy. But as for my plans, they never really changed once I knew that I would be able to continue in law school. I’m lucky that I chose a profession where all I have to do is write and talk, something I’m still able to do thanks to advances in technology.
You took some time off after the crash. Did you consider giving up on law school? Or did you always plan on returning when you were ready?
I took a year off from school to rehabilitate and get used to being paralyzed. It takes a lot of work to stay healthy while being a quadriplegic. But I always knew that once I was able to establish a routine, I would go back to law school and finish.
How did the crash affect you physically?
The crash crushed my spinal cord at the C-4 vertebra. I also had breaks in the C-1 through C-3 vertebra. Right after the crash, all I could do was weakly shrug my shoulders. Doctors had no idea how much or even if I would gain any mobility back or if I would even be able to breathe on my own. Luckily, I did get back some mobility in my arms but I am still paralyzed from the chest down and have no use of my hands. I am technically a quadriplegic.
How did the crash affect your ability to study law?
The law is a paper-intensive field. Luckily, technology is reducing the need for physical documentation. I am able to do all of my research online, do all of my writing with voice-recognition software and use scanners to convert anything in paper format.
How has it affected your ability to practice law?
I don’t think it really has affected my ability to practice law. I may need extra help from time to time or have to do things in a unique way, but I am still able to practice.
How many hours would you say you work per week on average?
I do keep slightly strange hours. I am at the office 9 AM to 3 PM Monday through Friday but I also keep working when I get home. It probably averages out to around 40 to 50 hours.
How many cases do you have on your plate right now?
I just started at the DOJ so I only have a few cases. We get a lot of prisoner litigation so I have a couple of those cases. We are also working on a case that we are appealing to the Supreme Court of Wisconsin. I really enjoy working at the DOJ. You don’t have to worry about billable hours, you get to work on interesting topics, and the people who I work with are incredibly smart and friendly.
What do you think is your best trait or quality as a lawyer?
I know when to ask for help. And while I’m confident in my abilities, I’m not prideful. As a lawyer, I’m always asking how I can improve my writing or litigation skills. In my nonprofit, I work with smart and capable people who I often defer to when the situation warrants. I think too often hubris impedes young lawyers from growing into skilled attorneys.
How could you improve?
I need to get better at speaking in front of people. I stutter sometimes or jumble up my words when speaking in public, which hurts my message. I just need more practice and luckily the DOJ and the media attention for my nonprofit has been giving me plenty.
What’s been your biggest accomplishment so far?
I don’t think I have a big accomplishment yet. I’m just starting out and I have a long way to go.
Founding the Victims for Impaired Driving Project
Please describe how quadriplegia has affected you and your day-to-day life.
It takes me a bit longer to do things. It takes me a little longer to get in the car or to brush my teeth in the morning or to write a brief. The benefit is that it gives me more time to think, to contemplate.
Do you consider the crash to be an “accident,” as alcohol-related car crashes are often characterized, or is it something more than that?
I try to not use that word when describing what happened to me. An accident connotes a lack of fault. When speaking to high school students or when I get the opportunity to speak to repeat impaired-driving offenders, I stress the importance of personal responsibility. When someone goes out to drink without a plan to get home safely, then drives impaired and gets into a car crash, it’s hard to describe that as an accident. Be an adult, take responsibility, make sure you have a plan to get home safely.
Did you have an opinion about drunk or drugged driving prior to the crash?
I never thought it was appropriate to drive impaired. In undergrad, we always made sure to have a designated driver or have a safe way home. I believe that this issue is generational. I think young people today are better informed on the dangers of impaired driving.
What is your opinion now, after the crash?
I’m obviously more passionate about the issue now. Having had my life so violently altered by someone who decided to drive impaired, I feel it’s important to share my story to hopefully prevent others from becoming just another statistic. It’s disappointing how avoidable a lot of these accidents are.
State the mission of the Victims for Impaired Driving Project.
The organization will provide financial and other support for those who have been impacted by impaired driving. We will work with people to develop individualized assistance plans so that we can provide them with the help they need.
What were the steps you took to start it?
I have been speaking to high schoolers and repeat DUI offenders, sharing my story. I turned that speech into that personal essay on Gawker. After having to go through the difficulties that I did, I always had an idea to create this organization to help people in similar situations. I knew this would be a great opportunity to garner a lot of attention and so I reached out to a few friends to see if they would be willing to help me get the organization off the ground.
What are the day-to-day or month-to-month tasks involved?
From a big picture standpoint, we will be looking to partner with major hospitals across the country along with state agencies to make people aware of our organization and the help we can provide. After connecting with individuals who have been impacted by impaired driving, we will look to develop their individual plans and begin providing the support they need. I will also continue to take advantage of speaking arrangements to share my story. Fundraising will also need to continue to make sure that we can keep helping people well into the future.
Did you have difficulty paying for healthcare expenses and personal needs?
Absolutely. I was lucky enough to have health insurance with my medical bills totaling well over $1 million but there were still co-pays to deal with not only on my healthcare bills but on specific items like my wheelchair. I had to remodel parts of my home to make it accessible. We needed a new vehicle and the installation of a ramp. And all of this is just scratching the surface. I was lucky though to have the support of my friends and community. They came together to help with a lot of these costs. I know not everyone is so lucky, which is why I feel that this organization is so important. It can provide people with the kind of support I was so lucky to receive.
Do you imagine that other victims of impaired driving have those difficulties? To what extent?
My circumstances are unique, to a certain extent. The degree of my loss and injury is probably much more substantial than the average victim of impaired driving. But across the country thousands of people lose their lives and millions have been injured in impaired driving crashes over the years.
Also note that I would be listed as “injured” in the statistics column. It is important for people to know that injuries can be much more substantial than just a broken hand or whiplash—but in any case, whether the help is large or small, it’s important to provide support for people who are truly victims.
Marijuana prohibition has begun to erode nationwide, bit by bit. Do you foresee more problems with people driving while high on marijuana?
I wholeheartedly support marijuana legalization nationwide. Just like how alcohol prohibition is not the answer to the issues surrounding drunk driving, marijuana prohibition is not the answer to the issues surrounding impaired driving. The high cost to society to enforce marijuana drug laws is just ridiculous. The ACLU just put out a new study highlighting the incredible amount of money spent enforcing marijuana laws and even worse, the disparate impact these laws have on minorities across the country. In any case, the real answer is personal responsibility. We live in an amazing country that provides us with many freedoms but none of these freedoms are absolute. We are expected to act in a reasonable and responsible manner when exercising our freedoms. So while we are free to drink a beer, we must be mindful that we do so reasonably and responsibly. Have a plan to get home safely before going out to drink. The same should be true for marijuana use. We should be free to smoke marijuana, but we must be mindful to do so reasonably and responsibly. Go out and buy your Cheetos first before smoking and getting the munchies so you don’t end up driving impaired.
Do you feel there’s a physical difference between driving while high and driving while drunk? Or is impaired driving impaired driving?
I’m not sure if there have been studies comparing the two but I would agree that impaired driving is impaired driving. You are essentially driving a metal rocket at an incredibly high speed. You should have all of your mental faculties in order before getting behind the wheel of your car.
I’ve heard the limit on blood alcohol content characterized as “arbitrary.” In other words, it’s just a line on a map, with no real impact on whether or not someone is truly impaired while behind the wheel. What would you say to that?
That’s absolutely ridiculous. Some studies suggest that driving with a BAC over 0.05 is dangerous. On top of that, how many people really know what 0.08 feels like? A project of our organization would be to help people learn what their limit feels like with the use of personal breathalyzers because, really, not many people have the chance to test themselves. And it drives me crazy when people argue that if the BAC limit is 0.05, then why not 0.04 or zero tolerance if it’s so much safer? Sensible lawmaking involves taking the information that is available and creating a system that balances personal freedom and safety.
Just because you have to debate where the line should be doesn’t mean that the line should not exist at all.
That’s like saying speed limits near school zones should be zero miles per hour in order to be absolutely safe or there should be no speed limits because anything other than zero is arbitrary.
The National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) recently proposed lowering the BAC limit from 0.08 to 0.05. Is that a good step? Does it make a difference?
I do support the change. I trust the study. Plus it would put us in line with most industrialized countries throughout the world. Listen, whether the limit was 0.01 or 2.0, the person who hit me would likely have still hit me. People like him have a drinking problem and no law is going to change the fact that these people are dependent on the bottle just to make it through the day. Short of imprisoning people for life, these people are likely going to drink and drive unless they get real help. But for most people, what I like about reducing the limit is that it forces people to think more carefully before drinking if they are going to drive. Particularly if the consequence for getting pulled over is more burdensome. Anything that forces people to think, to plan, to take ownership before drinking is something I support.
What is your opinion on first-time offenders versus repeat offenders? Should all offenders be punished/treated the same, regardless?
First-time offenders should have to deal with a significant penalty in order to encourage individuals not to drink and drive in the first place. I often hear the argument that the penalty does not prevent the crime. This may be true for crimes of passion (such as assault) or necessity (theft) but I don’t believe that to be true for crimes like impaired driving. If, for example (taking it to the extreme), getting a DUI meant life imprisonment, I’m quite sure people would take incredible care to have a plan to get home when going out to drink.
In Wisconsin, first-time offenders deal with little more than a speeding ticket. There are bills that will soon be debated to try to increase the penalty but the legislature does not seem too interested in passing these laws.
As for repeat offenders, it gets a bit more difficult. I’ve come to see that for some people, almost no penalty will stop them from putting themselves into a situation where they drink and drive. The alcohol is a disease for them. In these cases, we need to focus on providing rehabilitation rather than just retribution.
How far have you come with the nonprofit? How far do you have to go?
The nonprofit is still in its infancy. We are trying to raise money at VIDP.org. We need $50,000 by the end of July or this fundraiser will be a bust. So far we have only raised around $8,000. And although we still have quite a way to go, we aren’t giving up until the final bell rings.
And even then…
In the short term, our goals are to help as many people as we can who have been impacted by impaired driving. For the long-term, we would love this organization to see greater public support and become a stable source of funding for those who need it.
Working for the Wisconsin Department of Justice
You’ve told me you work in the Civil Litigation department at the Wisconsin DOJ. Tell me a little about that. What kind of cases do you handle?
In the civil litigation unit, we do a lot of prisoner litigation but we also see a multitude of other cases. One of my favorite parts of the job, as one of my supervising attorneys told me, is that the most important thing that we do is to make sure we are doing the right thing. It’s less about being competitive and striving only to win, and more about making sure the law is properly enforced.
Describe a case for me.
I recently worked on a petition for Wisconsin Supreme Court review. The issue involved defining the word “veteran” when it came to veteran benefits when applying for state employment. The lower courts have come to a definition that the DOJ believes unjustly rewards individuals who have not completed their service under honorable conditions and in turn, diminishes those who have. To be able to work on cases like this that I believe support the public good is a rare opportunity and I feel privileged to be a part of it.
What’s working about the civil lit department?
The office is amazing. The people I work with are incredibly talented, smart, and a joy to be around.
What might you change?
As of right now, nothing.
Do you feel that the WI DOJ makes a difference in the people it serves?
I think the DOJ does a wonderful job of enforcing and supporting the laws of the state of Wisconsin.
Have you considered politics? If so, why?
I have. I recently told my wife that I would love to run for political office within the next four years. I believe when working properly and efficiently, government can be a beacon for good as long as it’s working for a majority of its constituents. I also believe it is the best way for me to honor the memory of my family.
My mother was an immigrant from Mexico. When she married my father, she could barely speak English. She dealt with a degree of adversity that I could not imagine having to face. But she loved this country and what it represented. During the World Cup every four years, she would proudly root for the United States. One of the proudest days of her life was when she finally passed the test to become an American citizen. It was from her and through her eyes that I learned to love this country and the opportunities it provides to so many.
My father was a Republican and a union member. He was a truck driver who worked himself to the bone to provide for his family. He believed in taking personal responsibility but also in the good of the united collective. Particularly here in Wisconsin, it’s sad to see how vilified unions are amongst my father’s party. He would’ve been disappointed. He saw unions as a way to protect workers from exploitation but fought tooth and nail to make sure that his union never exploited the employer as well. He never concerned himself with the politics, only with making the right choice. I think that is too often forgotten in today’s political landscape. Individuals are too concerned with wins and losses rather than doing what’s best for the state, the country, and the people.
I could go on and on but suffice it to say, I’m passionate about politics.
What do you love about your job at the DOJ?
I would again say the people I work with.
The cramped office space. My wheelchair makes me a bit wider than most. I see a lot of scuffed walls in my future.
Tools of the Trade
Describe your office space.
We work downtown right next to the Capitol building. The DOJ was nice enough to provide me with my own office. Although, it was probably as much a necessity for them as it was for me. I use voice recognition software to do a majority of my work. I doubt they would want to have to listen to me write my memos and briefs out loud, every day, incessantly.
What hardware are you running?
Nothing special. Just a computer connected to a network.
I’m still new, so I’m not sure if the DOJ has anything in particular. I use Dragon NaturallySpeaking for my voice recognition needs. I also use Nuance’s PDF converter. Since it is difficult for me to use paper copies, I usually ask for them to be scanned in. My PDF converter allows me to change those PDFs into Word documents making it easy for me to edit them.
What do you do outside of work?
I love to read. I try to reserve at least an hour a day to do some personal reading. Whether it is the blogs I follow, the (digital) newspaper or a book, I try to make time to do some reading.
My wife and I also have a bit of a zoo at her house. We have two dogs, two cats, two rabbits and a gecko. We just enjoy hanging out on the couch with our pets and watching a movie.
What are your favorite things to do in Wisconsin?
Wisconsin is such a great place to live. During the summer, we love the farmers market, the concerts on the Capitol square, and just hanging out at the Union Terrace on campus on the lake. We really enjoy going to badger sporting events. Football games in the fall are hard to beat. We’ve also become pretty big UW hockey fans. Winter can be a bit of a drag but coming from California, it is nice to have snow on Christmas.
How can Lawyerist readers get in touch with you?
You can reach me at email@example.com or through the organization by visiting our crowd-funding page at www.vidp.org.
And One Final Question
How will you define success as a lawyer?
Since the crash, it’s just been putting one foot in front of the other (or one wheel, in my case). After the crash, I wasn’t sure if I could even go back to law school. When I made it back, I wasn’t sure if I could keep up with the work and graduate. Once I graduated, I wasn’t sure if I could actually work as a lawyer. And now that I am doing the job, I’m worrying about whether I can help run my nonprofit while working. But I think the trick is not to let the doubt stop you from trying. Anyone who is absolutely confident is delusional. Failure is always an option. I try to accept that. But I don’t let it control my life. And struggle and strife and difficulty are all good things. It means you’re being challenged.
Now, after the crash, I feel compelled to accomplish my goals. My mom and dad, they sacrificed so many of their dreams to provide for me and my little brother. And sadly, my little brother never had the opportunity to accomplish his dreams. I owe it to them to live a full life and being stuck in this chair is no excuse. In the end, all I really hope is that they are proud of me and of the life I lived. My job is to give them something to be proud of.
Thank you, Jimmy Anderson!