The Multiple Faces of Justice in a Wrongful Death Case
March 3, 2015 / Chip Cooper
The goals of people seeking the help of a wrongful death attorney can be as varied as the emotions they’re experiencing. It’s possible to actually win a verdict for a client yet still not attain the level of justice they had hoped for. The case that follows illustrates the many types of justice a client can seek, and some of the impediments those remedies may face — sometimes due to the legal system itself.
A drive ends in tragedy
Jake*, 38, was an avid motorcyclist. Ever since he was old enough to have a license, he’d ridden motorcycles. And contrary to the image that some have of motorcycle enthusiasts, Jake was a very careful, very safe, very deliberate rider. A family man, happily married with two children, Jake had never even received a traffic citation for motorcycle riding.
One sunny weekend afternoon, he and his wife, Mary*, were riding their motorcycles together, out on the highway. Unbeknownst to them, a semi-truck had punctured its fuel tank and was leaking diesel fuel onto the road. The truck eventually got off the road, splashing fuel all along the exit ramp.
Diesel fuel may look just like water, but when it’s spilled on concrete, the surface becomes as slippery as a sheet of ice. As Jake pulled onto the same exit ramp, he crossed over the spilled diesel fuel, his motorcycle slipped, and he was shot from the bike like a bullet from a gun. Jake hit a guard rail head first and instantly was killed.
A wrongful death case unearths the truth
At first this tragedy looked like a simple accident—somebody driving across a liquid substance and losing control of their vehicle—but our investigation revealed much more. After Mary came to us for help, we dug deep into the case and discovered a number of poor decisions that together had led to this terrible and wrongful death.
For example, the damage to the truck driver’s fuel tank had occurred when the driver ran over a metal object on the highway. Rather than pulling over and investigating the damage (the driver reported the initial impact sounding like a gunshot), she proceeded to drive for over a mile, leaking diesel fuel down that entire portion of the highway. Instead of calling the highway patrol, setting up flares or warning triangles, and generally trying to alert motorists to the danger, the driver tried to plug the leak with a rag and merely called dispatch for help.
Yet in spite of the driver’s obvious culpability, the trucking agency that employed her denied any responsibility, instead offering $25,000 to settle out of court. Considering the gravity of the situation—that Mary, her children, and Jake’s parents were attempting to face a life without Jake, who was also the breadwinner of the family—the trucking company’s offer simply wasn’t realistic.
So we went to trial. There we were able to present a powerful, convincing wrongful death claim to the jury. Some key moments of the trial:
We revealed that the truck driver already had a poor safety record with her employer.
We effectively cross-examined the trucking company’s safety director and listed all of the things the driver failed to do under the employer’s own policy. That, in conjunction with the testimony of the safety expert we brought in, clearly illustrated to the jury why we were seeking justice in this case.
We rented a helicopter and used it to videotape the entire one-plus mile of highway where the truck driver had recklessly spilled diesel fuel. As we played the video for the jury during closing arguments, there was absolute silence as they realized how long the fuel had been allowed to spill before the truck finally came to a stop (and then, only because the truck had suffered a flat tire).
Justice gained and lost
The good news is, we helped bring our client justice: The trial ended with a large jury verdict for compensatory and punitive damages. But here’s where things got a little tricky.
The verdict was appealed, and the punitive damages portion was tossed out based on an argument that the driver’s carelessness did not rise to a level warranting punitive damages.
Needless to say, this was disappointing—not only for us and the jurors, but especially for our client. One of the things the family had hoped would come out of this trial would be a message to the trucking company that said, “You’ve got to do something different here. You’ve got to understand what your driver did, and you need to elevate your safety standards so a 38-year-old man with a family doesn’t lose his life.”
That’s what punitive damages are all about. They send a message on behalf of the community to promote safety and better behavior. Driving a semi-truck is an extraordinarily dangerous activity, and we hoped that the punitive damages verdict would ensure that truck drivers understood they needed to be more vigilant about safety on the roadway.
Unfortunately, that message from the jury was erased by the court of appeals.
Still, justice was served in other ways. The compensatory damages the client received were desperately needed by Jake’s family. Moreover, those damages would help Mary follow through with a dream she and Jake had: sending their kids to college.
And there was something even more significant. While financial compensation was important to Mary and her kids, the family’s main priority was to establish that Jake had not caused his own death. From day one, the trucking company had denied responsibility for his accident, later adding insult by blaming Jake and claiming he was responsible for his own death since he had driven over a wet substance on the road.
The jury’s decision established in no uncertain terms that the truck driver and the trucking company were the real parties responsible for Jake’s tragic death. This was a tremendous relief for our client, and hopefully provided a building block in the long process of healing that lay ahead.
An attorney’s point of view
From our own perspective, this case represented a range of different feelings. We were gratified to see our client receive some measure of justice. Nothing we might have done could possibly eliminate the grief that Mary and her family were feeling, but we would like to believe we helped them in some small way to move forward.
But we also felt frustration and bewilderment with the appellate court’s decision. By overturning the jury’s decision to award punitive damages, the court not only negated justice for our client, who hoped measures would be taken so this type of accident could never be repeated in the future, but also negated a message that could have helped make the community’s highways safer.
Caring about caring
We were deeply touched by Jake’s story. During the trial, while we maintained our professionalism in the courtroom, there were times—when Jake’s family talked about what a phenomenal human being he was, and how important he’d been to them; when the jury came back with its verdict, making it crystal clear that Jake hadn’t been responsible for his accident—when we became emotional.
We believe that’s a good thing. Getting emotional reminds us we’re doing our jobs as wrongful death attorneys. It means we haven’t become numb to the system or to the horrible circumstances that our clients find themselves in. It means we can empathize and to some degree personally experience what our clients are going through.
*Names in this article have been changed to protect our client’s privacy.
The outcome of any client’s case will depend on the particular legal and factual circumstances of the case.
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