Isaac Thorp:
The Invisible Injury

When 8-year-old AJ climbed down off his Alamance County school bus, the bus driver failed to activate the flashing red lights or engage the stop arm to warn approaching drivers to look out for students getting off the bus. AJ spotted his great-aunt Sylvia parked across the street and started to run toward her. An elderly woman driving in the opposite direction headed toward the school bus never saw AJ until she hit him.

AJ suffered a broken leg and traumatic brain injuries. He was in the hospital for two weeks and still has deficits caused by the brain injury. Sylvia and Don McCormick, AJ’s great aunt and uncle and legal guardians, retained Burlington attorney Wade Harrison to help them. Harrison asked Raleigh personal injury attorney Isaac Thorp, who had experience handling traumatic brain injury (TBI) cases, to serve as lead counsel in the lawsuit against the school district, the bus driver, and the elderly driver. The case settled in January of this year, almost five years after AJ’s accident.

If I have a client with a crushed ankle, the jury can see the broken bones on an X-ray. I don’t always have an image that clearly shows brain damage.

The Invisible Injury

“Care providers who treat traumatic brain injury patients often refer to it as ‘the invisible injury.’ Some brain injuries show up on CT scans or MRIs, others don’t,” Thorp said. “If I have a client with a crushed ankle, the jury can see the broken bones on an X-ray. I don’t always have an image that clearly shows brain damage.” 

When Thorp started working with his first TBI client 20 years ago, he learned as much as he could about these kinds of injuries. “The military and the VA funded a lot of research after so many soldiers came home with traumatic brain injuries from IEDs in Iraq and Afghanistan,” Thorp said. 

Thorp recognizes that each brain injury affects people differently. As a result, each case is a puzzle. “Who was my client before the injury? How are they different now? I spent hours with AJ, Sylvia, and Don over the three years I was involved with them,” he said. “I often spoke with them two or three times a week. It was the only way for me to really understand how their lives had been upended.”

“If you watch AJ’s videotaped deposition, he understands the questions. He’s articulate and is good at describing how the injury affected him in some ways,” said Thorp. 

AJ had explained, “Well, you know my brain, I’ll get to talking about something, and all of a sudden, it’s like when your computer gets stuck, and the little wheel is spinning, that’s what happens with me. I can’t remember what I was talking about.” 

“A major task for us was understanding how AJ’s brain injury changed his academic performance, this wasn’t easy,” said Thorp. “The school system was a defendant in the case, and their attorneys didn’t want us to talk with AJ’s teachers.” 

So, Thorp had to go to court to compel their depositions. 

Thorp and Wade Harrison working on AJ’s case.

Prosecuting TBI Cases Are Expensive

Thorp hired a neuropsychologist expert to evaluate AJ to understand his cognitive abilities thoroughly. She administered a battery of standardized academic tests a few months before the case was scheduled for trial. Thorp said her findings were crucial. 

“Despite the fact that AJ was getting good grades and glowing evaluations, the standardized tests showed he was not performing anywhere near grade level.” 

Prosecuting TBI cases are expensive. They often require a number of different experts. “Our experts included a neuropsychologist, a vocational expert who was also a life care planner, and two psychologists,” said Thorp. “They helped piece together a full picture of how the brain injury changed AJ’s life and what his prospects for the future looked like.”

Another reason litigating serious injury cases like TBIs is a challenge is because a lot of treating physicians don’t want to get involved. “But we were really blessed. AJ’s pediatric ICU doctor, Dr. Rebecca Smith, was willing to review all of AJ’s medical records, about 4,000 pages. And she remembered how devoted Don and Sylvia were to AJ during his long hospital stay. Dr. Smith remembered them specifically because they struck her as an exceptionally devoted family,” said Thorp. 

The McCormicks have overcome tremendous challenges since that day AJ got off the bus in May 2017. “AJ tries his heart out to do well at school, but often feels hopelessly behind,” Thorp said. “COVID made things even tougher. Don said AJ still has a hard time sleeping alone and has intense separation anxiety. Sylvia said she wrestles with insomnia too. As soon as she closes her eyes, the image of AJ flying through the air after being hit and landing on his head still haunts her.”

Sylvia and Don worry about what will happen to AJ when they are no longer alive. The long-term trajectory of TBI victims is unpredictable. Whether AJ will be able to live on his own, drive a car, or get a job is unknown. After the case settled, Thorp and AJ’s family spent several weeks researching the best way to preserve AJ’s settlement funds. They decided to purchase an annuity and create a Special Needs Trust, so AJ could have options such as attending private school, getting intensive vocational training, and psychological counseling. 

“We are glad to know there’s money for AJ after we’re gone,” said Sylvia. 

Tammy Hopkins, Harrison, Thorp, AJ, Sylvia and Don gathering at Western Charcoal Steakhouse.
Tammy Hopkins, Harrison, Thorp, AJ, Sylvia and Don gathering at Western Charcoal Steakhouse.

Fighting on the Merits

Thorp launched his law firm in 2013. He represents clients with a wide variety of serious personal injuries, including TBIs and spinal cord injuries. “I love helping people who are coping with serious injuries. These cases are often more complicated, but they warrant investing the time and resources so that jurors can quickly understand just how profoundly a client’s life has been impacted,” said Thorp. 

His firm also handles condemnation cases, representing landowners most often against the NCDOT.

“In AJ’s case, we had over $100,000 in litigation costs when we got the case settled at mediation. A war chest allows our team to develop the evidence thoroughly. That’s what makes my work really satisfying.”

Complex cases with a lot at stake tend to be intensely litigated. “You have to be good at fighting without making it personal. At the end of the day, I’m going to ask the insurance company to write my client a big check. I don’t want a personality conflict with the other attorneys to get in the way of my ability to get that last dollar, and then some, for my clients,” explained Thorp. 

“When we file a lawsuit, and I see who the lawyer will be on the other side, I give them a call. ‘Hey, I see you’re representing the defendant in this case. I look forward to working with you.’ I believe in cooperating on procedure and fighting on the merits. It really makes a difference. Because when litigation heats up, as it usually does, if you’ve created a cooperative framework early on, it can help resolve most problems without having to go to court.” 

An Unconventional Path

Isaac Thorp with his father, Bill Thorp.
Isaac Thorp with his father, Bill Thorp.

Thorp initially had no interest in becoming a lawyer like his great-grandfather, William Lewis Thorp, a judge and mayor for the city of Rocky Mount, NC, his grandfather William Lewis Thorp Jr., and his father, Bill Thorp, who was one of the first plaintiffs’ lawyers in the state.

Thorp worked on a fishing boat to help pay his way through college. He sometimes spent two or three weeks at sea on fishing trawlers, 50 miles offshore, like those seen on “The Deadliest Catch.”

After graduating from college, he moved to New York City and helped his sister Laurie manage a small retail business. “My favorite part of the job was gathering evidence and writing memos to win disputes with delinquent suppliers who were costing us money. One day it hit me. I want to be a lawyer! One of the best decisions I’ve ever made,” Thorp said.

After graduating from NYU School of Law, Thorp wanted to do trial work. He joined the Brooklyn D.A.’s Special Victims Unit, which handles sex crimes. It landed him a guest show appearance on “Oprah.” 

After prosecuting rapists and child sex abusers for several years, Thorp returned to Raleigh and joined his father’s personal injury law firm, Thorp, Sullivan & Thorp. 

Clerk Law

One of the first lessons Thorp’s father taught him was the difference between the law and clerk law.

“I went to the courthouse to file something with the clerk. But it seemed to me the clerk was confused,” Thorp recalled with a laugh. “So, I told that clerk, ‘I don’t think that’s the way you do it. That’s not what the statute says.’ When I returned to the office, I explained to my father why I had not accomplished my mission. ‘What?!’ my father exclaimed in his jocular way, ‘Didn’t your law professors teach you about clerk law? Apparently not. Now go back down there, apologize to that clerk and ask her if she would teach you how they do things.’ Of course, I went back to the courthouse and sheepishly asked the clerk to teach me the right way to do things and was better off for it.” 

Fun with Zumba

Thorp is a devotee of Zumba, a fitness program that combines cardio and synchronized dance. “When you’ve got a room full of 50 or 60 people, the music rattling the walls, and people dancing in sync and shouting out loud, it’s a great way to blow off steam,” said Thorp. 

When COVID shut the gym down, Thorp scouted the local parks and found a large picnic shelter at Bond Park with live electrical hookups. He was thrilled when his instructor agreed to hold classes outside. Thorp and a group of die-hard friends gathered once or twice a week for the next 12 months, whether it was 90 degrees in August or 30 degrees in January. 

“As lawyers, we worry. We are supposed to worry. We check things, double-check things, and then check them again. We support folks who are often going through the worst times in their lives. It’s important to find healthy ways of lightening our spirits. Zumba does that for me,” said Thorp.

Thorp enjoying Zumba during COVID.
Thorp enjoying Zumba during COVID.
The Evidence Club – Stephanie Gibbs and Thorp.
The Evidence Club – Stephanie Gibbs and Thorp.

The Evidence Club

Thorp is married to Stephanie Gibbs, a family law attorney, and partner at Gailor Hunt Davis Taylor & Gibbs. 

A former newspaper reporter, Gibbs was just beginning her second career as a lawyer when the couple started dating. She often asked him questions about the Rules of Evidence and Civil Procedure. Thorp is a co-author of “Thorp’s Forms,” a practitioner’s manual on civil procedure. 

“This led to The Evidence Club,” said Gibbs. “We loved talking about different scenarios and uses of the rules of evidence. One of us would convene a meeting, usually me, and we’d talk for probably too long about exceptions to the hearsay rule.” 

Gibbs said she admires her husband’s down-to-earth approach to law and to people. “He’s good at what he does, in part because he is very authentic,” she said. “When you meet Isaac, what you see is what you get. He conveys calm energy and a sense of humor that offers perspective. People sense that; they feel that. And they trust him.”

“Being a good listener is key to helping clients,” said Thorp. “To be a truly good lawyer, doing this sort of work, you’ve got to be willing to be vulnerable. If I’m going to really understand my clients, I have to be willing to feel some of their pain.” 

Happy to Collaborate

Although Harrison has handled personal injury cases, his focus is family law. He called Thorp to get him involved with AJ’s case a few months after they met at a CLE. “A lot of our work comes from other attorneys who may not do any personal injury work or who may want assistance with catastrophic cases that are complicated and expensive. I love talking with other lawyers who call to brainstorm or to co-counsel,” Thorp said. “Wade and I really worked well together, and at the end of the day, our clients were better off as a result.”

“This litigation was no joke,” Harrison said. “It was complicated. One of the best professional decisions I have ever made was to team up with Isaac. I appreciate his integrity and compassion. This case was rewarding on many levels, but what I will always remember is how much fun it is to work with Isaac.”

Healing

AJ, his family, and his legal team celebrated the end of the case over lunch at Western Charcoal Steakhouse in Burlington in March. Thorp picked up a piece of fried chicken, an indulgence, and ate with his hands, another indulgence, and grinned proudly at AJ seated next to him. 

“Sylvia said I had sort of become a part of their family. That feels good,” said Thorp with a smile. “It also feels good to know that perhaps we helped them heal a little so that they can move forward.” 

Thorp Law PLLC

4140 Parklake Avenue, Suite 100
Raleigh, NC 27612
919-833-6408
www.thorplaw.com

Bar Admissions

Practice Areas

Publication

Professional Experience

Awards

Post Views: 194