Articles Posted in Verdicts and Settlements

On November 21, 2006, Daniel Becker and his mother, Pamela, were on their way from Mooresville, North Carolina to join family in Alabama for Thanksgiving. Around 10:30 p.m., as they passed through Oconee County, South Carolina, the driver of a northbound rig pulling two trailers lost control of his vehicle. The tractor and double trailers ran through the cable barrier and slammed into the Becker’s southbound vehicle, along with two other vehicles. Daniel, the seatbelted driver, died at the scene. His mother suffered a closed head injury, facial fractures, and multiple upper body fractures. She was airlifted to Greenville Memorial Hospital, but doctors there were ultimately unable to save her life.

The trucker claimed he started coughing and blacked out just before losing control. A subsequent investigation determined that in addition to driving in the rain at night, the driver had the vehicle on cruise control, had his CB radio on, and received two cell phone calls, including one by call waiting, shortly before the collision. Due to the differing accounts of the coughing episode the driver gave to medical personnel and law enforcement, Mr. Becker brought a lawsuit, alleging that distractions were the true cause of the collision. Mr. Becker also sued the trucking company, alleging negligent hiring, negligent supervision, and negligent entrustment of a dangerous instrument (the truck). There was evidence that the driver was suffering serious personal or medical problems that the company knew about and that allowing the driver to continue to control a tractor-trailer created an unreasonable risk of harm to the public. Mr. Becker pointed to recurring logbook violations, which the company is required to review, and to a preventable collision the driver was in just 11 days before the wreck that killed the Beckers.

Both parties hired numerous experts to review the facts and claims in the lawsuit, including experts on “cough syncope,” the driver’s alleged condition. The driver and trucking company settled the suit before trial for $7 million, with the added condition that the company hire an independent safety consultant to help the company implement safety policies covering existing drivers.

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On the July 4th weekend in 2002, Christina Chakonas and Diana Kakidas had plans. They were going to watch the fireworks, then head to a dance club. No drugs, no alcohol, just have some fun. Their group met a group of boys and one of the boys, Adam McDonald, got into Christina’s car for the drive to the club. They were following the other group’s car, but as they pulled onto rural U.S. 30, Christina’s Grand Am was struck by a tractor-trailer. All three died.

Initially, it seemed the collision was entirely Christina’s fault. The truck didn’t have a stop sign, only Christina did. She may not have come to a full stop before pulling out and she may not have had her lights on. But further investigation told another part of the story. The truck driver had driven more hours than safety regulations allow. The “black box” on the truck showed he was speeding. A reconstruction of the collision indicated the driver didn’t hit his brakes until 3 seconds after he slammed into the Grand Am. Together, this painted a picture of a truck driver who was profoundly tired – and not paying attention.

The teens’ families brought suit against the shipper, the driver, and the driver’s trucking company. Lawyers for the teens presented evidence of the collision. They presented evidence that the trucking company should have known the driver wasn’t safe because he had a history of falsifying his driving logs, something the company should have been aware of. The defendants presented evidence of Christina’s fault and argued the black box showed the driver was driving below the speed limit.

On November 2, 2007, a Cook County, Illinois jury decided that the truck driver was 60% responsible for the collision. The jury awarded $8 million to Diana’s and Adam’s families for their losses. The jury valued the loss to Christina’s family at $7 million, but the amount was reduced to $4.2 million because she was 40% responsible.

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The tragic story of how Duane and Janet Willis lost six of their children illustrates why it is so important to seek justice after a truck accident.

The Reverand and Mrs. Willis were traveling through Milwaukee on I-94 in November, 1994 on their way to their adult son’s home for a birthday party. In their Plymouth Grand Voyager minivan were the six youngest of their nine children, ranging from six months to thirteen years old. The Willis’s minivan struck a piece of the taillight/mudflap that fell off a tractor trailer driven by Ricardo Guzman. This piece of debris was a two and a half foot long section of steel bracket. The truck piece punctured the Willis’s gas tank and the sparks that resulted from it dragging on the ground ignited the minivan’s gas in the tank. Only one child, thirteen year old Ben, made it out of the van. Reverand and Mrs. Willis were severely burned trying to rescue the other children, but the others perished in the flames. Although his hair was singed off and his lips burned, Ben asked about his siblings before he was flown to the burn unit. He died the next day after asking the nurse to hold his hand and pray with him. Unfortunately, she couldn’t because of the severity of his burns.

The Willises wanted to know how this could have happened. Their lawyer took over 120 depositions of fact witnesses and experts over the next two years. The Willis’s attorney retained experts in fields such as metallurgy, fracture mechanics, and accident investigation. The Willises alleged that the company that leased the trailer failed to properly maintain it and that the truck company improperly hired the driver. The Willises also brought negligence claims against the mudflap manufacturer and design defect claims against Chrysler for its tank design.
One of the most shocking findings of the investigation was that the driver, Ricardo Guzman, couldn’t understand radioed warnings that the mudflap was about to fall off, because he didn’t speak English. When the lawyer dug deeper, he discovered that the driver was able to get a commercial drivers license only because he paid a bribe in the form of a campaign contribution for then Illinois Secretary of State George Ryan. When state investigators tried to investigate the connection of Guzman to Ryan, Ryan ordered his office to stop the investigation. Ryan soon went on to become Governor of Illinois, but the investigation continued. Ryan’s obstruction blossomed into a larger federal investigation that lead to the 2006 corruption trial of former governor. The Willises wrote letters to the court when Ryan was sentenced. The bottom line is that Governor Ryan might not have ever been exposed for his corruption, had the Willis family chosen to do nothing about the tragedy.

The Willis family settled with six civil defendants before trial for $100,000,000. The Willises reportedly have used the settlement largely to support missionary work.

Thanks to the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, the Chicago Sun-Times and the Transportation Lawyers Association for reporting.

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This unfortunate case involves a 28 year-old man who was rear-ended by a tractor trailer. The force of the collision threw his vehicle into the path of an oncoming cement truck, which slammed into the victim’s vehicle. The young man died from his injuries at the scene.

After the collision, the driver of the rear-ending truck tested positive for high levels of cocaine and marijuana. The man’s family brought suit in Illinois, because the truck company was negligent for allowing the driver behind the wheel when he was clearly unfit to drive.
This case shows the appalling lengths some truck companies will go to avoid compensating victims. After the victim’s family filed suit in Illinois, the truck company stated under oath that it had only $1 million in insurance available, an obvious attempt to force a low settlement. The family’s attorney, suspecting this wasn’t true, had to file another lawsuit in Oklahoma, where the tractor-trailer was registered. In Oklahoma, defendants like the trucking company can be forced to confirm how much insurance coverage they have. It turned out that the trucking company had far more insurance coverage than they had admitted. There was actually $50,000,000 of insurance available.

At trial, the trucking company fought to keep the jury from hearing evidence of its driver’s drug use, but the judge allowed the evidence to be heard. At the end of the trial, the jury found the rear-ending driver and trucking company were 100% responsible for the collision. The jury awarded the victim’s family $18.2 million for the deceased man’s lost future earnings and the loss of the his companionship. The jury awarded an additional $1 million for the man’s suffering before he died at the scene of the wreck.

Hopefully, this will convince the at-fault trucking company to think twice next time before they put a dangerous trucker out on our roads.

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A young Army officer traveling to his first duty station in Texas struck a tractor trailer that had stopped in the left lane of Interstate 30 near Texarkana in March, 2002. The twenty-three year old lieutenant died from his injuries. The drivers of the truck, a husband-wife team from the Waco, Texas area, had attempted to repair the brakes on their vehicle two hours before the collision by using electrical tape and a toothpick to stop a leak in a high-pressure hydraulic line. When the drivers notified the trucking company of this childish repair, instead of sending a tow truck, the company sent an email congratulating them on their resourcefulness. Of course, the “repair” quickly failed, leaving the tractor-trailer stranded in the left, high speed, lane.
The trucking company and drivers defended in court by blaming the young lieutenant. The defendants said he was at least 60% at fault (if he was more than 50% at fault, he could not recover anything). Further, the trucking company said this was an unusual situation that didn’t reflect its normally safety-oriented practices.

The jury did find that the lieutenant was negligent, but found that his negligence was only 10% of the cause of his injuries. The jury found the driver and the company equally responsible for the remaining 90%. The jury awarded his parents $1,000,000 each for intangible losses, including mental anguish and lost companionship. The jury awarded the soldier’s estate $7,000 in actual damages for burial costs and punitive damages of $15,000,000 against the company and $500,000 against the driver.

Before the verdict, the two sides had entered into a so-called “high-low agreement” to resolve the case. This agreement guaranteed that the soldier’s family would recover between $750,000 and $1,250,000. If the jury had come back with a verdict below $750,000, the family would still recover the minimum $750,000. If the jury awarded more than $1,250,000, the family could not recover the excess. A jury award in between would be recovered at the amount the jury set. The family therefore actually recovered $1.25 million, because of their contractual agreement with the defendants.

With a high-low agreement, victims are guaranteed a recovery, but the defendants are not exposed to high damages. Each side gains something and the jury still performs its function of determining how much the victim receives, particularly in the middle range. Since Texas law caps punitive damages at $400,000, most of Lt. Giuliano’s damages could never have been collected. A high low agreement spared both parties the costs and uncertainties of appealing on the issue of excessive verdict.

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Michael Clarkin, a worker at the South Carolina Ports Authority in Mount Pleasant, South Carolina suffered permanent, debilitating injuries in November, 2004. Mr. Clarkin was a clerk, whose job involved tracking container shipments. The facility where he worked offloads cargo ships.

The incident occurred when a toplifter (similar to a forklift) failed and a cargo container dropped nearly fifty feet and bounced onto the SUV Mr. Markin was sitting in. Mr. Markin was about 40 feet away from the loading area when the metal cargo container broke loose. Rescue workers extricated him from the vehicle and took him to the Medical University of South Carolina. Mr. Markin suffered injuries to his legs and back, as well as neurological injuries that have resulted in profound changes in his personality and ability to process thoughts.

The settlement involved three defendants: Kalmar Industries, which manufactured the lifter, Gregory Poole Equipment Company, which sold the lifter, and the State Ports Authority. Liability centered on a design defect in the lifting equipment. The State Ports Authority was aware of problems with the lifter-it had been twice been reported for problems and twice cleared for service the day before the incident. The Port Authority’s liability was limited to $140,000, however. The cost of long-term care and high salaries in the longshoreman profession explain the amount of the settlement.

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On Mother’s Day, 2002, five-year-old Leilani Guitierrez was a passenger in her mother’s Suburban. They were headed home from a carousel ride in Costa Mesa, California.

This innocent little girl’s life was turned upside down by a Defense Department worker’s negligence. The worker ran a red light and broadsided the Guitierrez’s vehicle, sending it careening into a utility pole. The injuries were catastrophic. The bones in Leilani’s neck were crushed.

This little girl will spend the rest of her life – a life that will probably end by the age of 35 – in a motorized wheelchair. She spent 250 days in the hospital and has endured 24 surgeries. Leilani will require complete assistance with all the tasks associated with everyday life – eating, dressing, bathing, and getting into the wheelchair – her only means of moving. She still has her mind, but the functioning of her body was lost forever.

Leilani and her parents filed suit against the government. Like any other employer, the government is responsible for the negligent driving of its employees while they are on official business. The federal district court awarded $54 million in actual damages to Leilani this week. An additional $1 million judgment went to her parents for their own suffering as a result of seeing their child suffer.

As in any case involving a minor, the court will oversee distributions of the funds, to make sure that the funds are spent on medical expenses and related care. Much of the judgment will go to pay past medical expenses.

While this is a large award, I want to point out two aspects of this judgment to those who cry out for so-called “tort reform.” First, this isn’t a case of a run-away jury, because there was no jury. A U.S. District Court judge determined the amount of Leilani Guitierrez’s damages. Second, there were no punitive damages in this case. $23 million of this award is for the proven actual cost of caring for a completely helpless little girl, around the clock … for the rest of her life. $31 million is to compensate her for her suffering and the loss of opportunity for an ordinary life. Leilani’s case shows why absolute caps on damages are short-sighted. There are instances where an injured person’s actual, proven damages are extraordinarily high. But these are the exception, rather than the rule. The cap argument comes down to a simple question: In an exceptional case, who should bear the extra costs- the victim or the wrongdoer? Everyone is entitled to their opinion, but as for me, I’m proud to fight for the victim.

Thanks to the Orange County Register

On an icy, foggy interstate, a tractor trailer ran into a young man who had stopped his vehicle near North Platte, Nebraska. Traffic was backed up from other collisions in dense fog over an icy interstate. The young man slid into a mile marker post as he stopped. He then got out of his vehicle to help other people along the roadway, and also to check the damage to his vehicle. That is when the tractor trailer ran into the back of his vehicle at over 35 mph, also striking him. His injuries included four fractured vertebrae, fractured ribs and scapula (shoulder blade) and nerve damage to his right arm. His medical bills exceeded $230,000.

In the lawsuit that followed, the truck driver and the trucking company claimed the man contributed to the collision by not turning on his hazard lights and by getting out of his vehicle. The jury accepted this argument in part: the man received a $11,230,000 verdict that was reduced by 20% due to the man’s partial negligence.

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This unfortunate case involved a truck driver in Indiana turning left across two lanes and a median, disregarding oncoming traffic in the lane he entered. The tractor-trailer struck a driver with the right of way, flipping the smaller vehicle over and causing it to slide on its roof for nearly 150 feet. The driver of that vehicle suffered head injuries including a horrific injury to the scalp. The driver, a 79 year old father of three, was hospitalized for 28 days, slipping in and out of consciousness. His medical bills alone amounted to $131,000.00. The driver died one day after being transferred to a nursing home for additional care.

His family brought suit against the driver and the trucking company. A jury rejected the defendants’ argument that the accident was the deceased man’s fault and returned a verdict of $1,486,400 — $1,000,000 to the family for wrongful death and $486,400 for the man’s suffering over those last 30 days before he died.

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In this case, a tractor trailer backed up unexpectedly, crushing a landfill worker between the trailer and a bulldozer blade. The tractor trailer didn’t have a back-up alarm – an inexpensive device designed to alert workers to backing trucks and designed to prevent just this sort of incident.

The truck driver, who had only been on the job three days, became stuck at the landfill. Apparently, this wasn’t the first time this had happened, because the landfill had policies in place to deal with the situation. Landfill policy required truck drivers to personally hook a chain to their trucks so that a bulldozer could back the truck up to free it. The landfill instituted this policy to promote safety and prevent damage to the trucks. In this instance, the new truck driver simply waited in his truck and a landfill employee hooked a chain to the truck (a violation of the landfill’s own policy). A bulldozer operator then pulled the truck backwards to the machine the injured worker attended at the landfill (he did not work for the landfill; he worked for the machine owner). The worker later testified at deposition that he went to the cab of the truck and told the driver that he was going behind the truck to unhook the chain, to which the driver nodded. The worker then walked to the rear of the truck and entered the area between the truck and the bulldozer. Without warning, the truck started moving backwards and crushed the worker. The quick-thinking bulldozer operator rotated his machine, thus sparing the worker any further injuries. The tractor-trailer driver claimed another landfill worker motioned for him to back up just before the tragic incident.

This incident snapped the worker’s femur and crushed his pelvis. He now requires a walker to attempt to walk even short distances, and he must use a wheelchair for any longer movements. Needless to say, he can no longer perform his former job or any other similar work. A single father of three teenage sons at the time of the incident, he sustained lifetime earning losses estimated by an expert to be between $800,000 and $1,200,000.

This case settled before trial for $3,350,000: $2,350,000 from the landfill and $1,000,000 from the trucking company that employed the driver.

Perhaps this sort of injury could have been prevented by a simple back-up alarm. You have probably heard these on many trash trucks, school buses, and other machinery. With a properly functioning back-up alarm, the worker would have heard the alarm start beeping the instant the truck was put in reverse, giving him warning to move out of the way. This is an all-too familiar situation, one I have written about before, but some trucking companies continue to ignore the rest of their industry and will not install these devices, despite the cost to others in terms of safety.

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