Victim of Truck Crash Wins $641K
Company is held at fault for dump truck breakdown that caused I-575 accident
A Cobb County jury has awarded $641,250 to a tire store manager who said a broken-down dump truck on an Interstate highway caused him to run off a cliff.
Jonathan Eley broke his back when his 1997 Ford pickup skidded down a bank and landed head first into the dry side of a riverbed. He was taken by ambulance to a hospital, where he underwent spinal surgery. His medical bills totaled $140,000, according to plaintiff's attorney Michael Goldberg of Fried Rogers Goldberg. Goldberg tried the case with Christopher John Adams of the Kenneth Nugent firm. Adams filed the lawsuit in January 2011, then brought in Goldberg's firm, known for trucking cases.
The Nov. 14 verdict set damages at $712,500, but reduced the award by 10 percent for the plaintiff's negligence. Defense attorney Hilliard Castilla of Waldon Adelman Castilla Hiestand & Prout argued that other cars on a crowded I-575 during the morning rush hour of April 1, 2010, managed to avoid crashing. Only the plaintiff wrecked, and he was six or seven cars back when a 2000 Mack dump truck dropped its drive shaft, causing its brakes to lock up and spew out smoke and shrapnel across the freeway.
Goldberg said his client decided it would be safer to go onto the shoulder than to risk hitting the car in front of him and being in the middle of a pileup. He didn't count on the frost on the grass that made his pickup slide off the cliff.
"Our argument was, when you create the emergency, you're responsible," Goldberg said, explaining how he was able to place 90 percent of the fault on the owner of the dump truck, Newsome Trucking Inc.
Goldberg added that Castilla made some smart moves that held down the verdict. To start with, Castilla persuaded Cobb County State Court Judge Irma Glover to drop State Farm Fire and Casualty Co. as a defendant before the trial by agreeing in advance that the insurer would pay the judgment. "We argued that the purpose of the statute allowing insurance companies to be named as defendants in trucking cases is to make sure the judgment is paid," Castilla said. State Farm was pleased to be left out of the conflict. Also, the move avoided showing deep pockets to the jury.
Asked if he'd used that maneuver before, Castilla said no, but he was pleased with the result. While State Farm still could have appealed, the company chose not to and already has paid the judgment, he said.
Castilla also succeeded with a motion for a directed verdict for the driver of the dump truck, Kenneth Mulkey, and also on a claim for punitive damages. At that point, with the plaintiff finished presenting its case, the trial proceeded against the trucking company only. The judge ruled that it was the truck breakdown, not the actions of the driver, that led to the accident. Also, she ruled that any negligence on the part of the company was not egregious enough to warrant punitive damages.
"I was very surprised at how well she did in breaking down complex issues," Goldberg said of the judge. He said Glover was able to "boil it down to the essence" in a "precise and intellectually sound way." He said she was "very conservative" and "made me answer hard questions." He added, "If I couldn't answer them, she'd rule against me."
Castilla made another smart move, according to his opposing counsel. "Hilliard did a great job in procedurally keeping the case under control," Goldberg said. "He ended up not calling witnesses so he had final closing."