Four years ago, a pickup truck crossed the median of a Texas Interstate and collided with a semitrailer truck, resulting in the death of 7-year-old boy in the pickup and leaving a 12-year-old girl a quadriplegic.
The family sued Werner Enterprises, but the Omaha-based trucking company says it shouldn’t be held responsible because its driver wasn’t the one who lost control.
The result last week in a Texas courtroom — an $89.6 million jury verdict.
Patrick Borchers, a professor at Creighton University School of Law, said he predicts that the amount will be among the 25 highest jury awards this year among the thousands nationally.
The family and its attorneys see it as fair compensation for loss of life and for catastrophic injuries. But Werner called the award surprising and disappointing, plans to appeal and said the company and its driver did not cause the accident.
Borchers said juries can be sympathetic to families in cases involving life-altering injuries and major companies, like Werner, that are perceived as having deep pockets.
“The big guy-little guy thing does play into it,” Borchers said. “When you see a monster verdict like this, that is often the setup.”
Nathan Meisgeier, Werner’s executive vice president and chief legal officer, said the judge still needs to decide how much the company would owe of the total verdict amount. The jury, he said, arrived at several percentages of the total that Werner would owe, and the judge can choose from those.
The case involved the Blake family of Houston.
Jennifer Blake’s 7-year-old son, Zack, died after the crash on Interstate 20 in Texas. Brianna “Destiny” Blake, Jennifer’s 12-year-old daughter, suffered a traumatic brain injury that rendered her a quadriplegic, said Eric Penn, an attorney for the family. Both Jennifer Blake and her older son, Nathan, suffered brain injuries, he said.
Meisgeier said “our hearts go out to Mrs. Blake and her children.”
But he said it’s “hard to fathom” how a jury could find his company negligent. He said the 24-year-old driver of the Werner truck was driving below the posted speed and did not lose control of the semitrailer.
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He said the driver of the pickup lost control, crossed the median and struck the Werner truck, which was traveling in the opposite direction.
Penn said a key element in the case is the commercial driver’s license manual that he says tells drivers to stop driving in icy conditions. Penn said the Interstate was icy at the time of the crash.
Penn said if the Werner driver had followed the manual, the semitrailer would have been off the road and therefore, the pickup containing the Blake family would not have crashed into it.
Meisgeier said there was competing evidence during the trial on whether the road was icy or just damp.
He said Werner also disputes the purpose of the commercial driver’s license manual. He said it’s not a book of laws and rules that drivers must follow, but rather a handbook that helps drivers study for their license.