$34.2 Million Jury Verdict in Crash Resulting in Paraplegia

Christopher Arnold was 19 years old and riding in a pickup truck driven by Jonathan Ortiz when a friend traveling behind them called to say that furniture had fallen off the friend’s truck. Ortiz pulled the pickup truck onto the road’s shoulder, preparing to make a U-turn so he could go back and help his friend. As Ortiz pulled back onto the road and began turning, a van coming up behind him struck a glancing blow to the pickup truck. The truck spun around and came to rest with Arnold’s side facing oncoming traffic. Moments later, Robert Sims, driving a pickup truck for Weatherford U.S. L.P., struck the truck’s passenger side.

Arnold was not wearing his seatbelt. He suffered multiple injuries, including a burst fracture at L-1, resulting in paraplegia. He suffered spinal fractures at T7-9 and T-12. He also had two rib fractures, a collapsed lung and lacerations to his spleen. Arnold was hospitalized for more than a month and underwent a spinal fusion at T12-L2 among other procedures. He has undergone extensive rehabilitation. He now uses a wheelchair and requires assistance with daily living activities.

Arnold’s past medical expenses total about $345,900 and his future life-care costs are estimated at $5.85 million.

At the time of this crash, Arnold was working as a heavy equipment operator. He is now permanently disabled and unable to return to work. His past lost earnings total $62,000 and his future lost earning capacity is estimated at about $1.48 million.

Arnold filed a lawsuit against Weatherford U.S. and Robert Sims claiming that Sims was negligent in following too closely and choosing not to pay proper attention to his driving. It was also claimed that Weatherford failed to properly train Sims.

The demand before trial was $9.85 million. On the eve of trial, the defendants offered $150,000 in settlement, which was rejected.

At the jury trial, the plaintiff’s accident reconstruction expert testified that Sims was likely too close behind Ortiz to have avoided a crash. The plaintiff contended that although Weatherford instructed its drivers to follow the “3-second rule,” the company never trained Sims on how to use the rule to calculate a safe following distance. Sims testified that although he was told to use the rule when he was trained, he did not remember how to calculate it.

Sims also testified that he was following the van driver by “2 to 3 car lengths” before the impact. At Sims’s deposition, he said he considered a “car length” to be the length of a normal sedan. Therefore, counsel argued, by his own testimony, Sims was following at 40-60 feet – a distance even the defense experts conceded was impossible.

Weatherford’s area safety coordinator testified at deposition that he was not familiar with the 3-second rule and that he did not know the company’s policy on following distances.

The defendants named Ortiz as a responsible third-party and argued that he was solely at fault for the collision because he had made an illegal U-turn.  The defendants also maintained that Arnold was negligent in choosing not to wear his seatbelt and that he would have escaped paralyzing injuries if he had been wearing it.

The plaintiff’s biomechanics expert countered with studies indicating that in this limited instance, an unbelted passenger – Arnold — was statistically more likely to have suffered an injury as bad as, or worse than the one he suffered had he been wearing a seatbelt.

The plaintiff argued that although Ortiz was at fault for the first impact, Sims could have prevented the second impact. Both sides’ biomechanical engineering experts agreed that had Sims been following farther behind or paying closer attention, that second crash could have been avoided.

While the jury was deliberating, the parties agreed to a high-low agreement with a high of $9 million and a low of $500,000. The jury allocated fault at 34% to Weatherford, 30% to Ortiz, 28% to Sims and 8% to Arnold.  The jury then entered a verdict of $34.2 million in compensatory damages, $33 million in punitive damages against Weatherford and $250,000 in punitive damages against Sims.

The parties settled the case based on their high-low agreement, which was the high amount of $9 million.

The attorneys representing Christopher Arnold were Thomas Rhodes III, Robert E. Brzezinski, Erin Ogleby, Thomas J. Henry and Roger L. Turk.

At trial, the plaintiff’s expert witnesses included an accident investigator, a trucking industry policy and procedures expert, a biomechanics expert, a neurosurgeon and life-care planner.  The defense presented experts in accident reconstruction, accident investigation, biomechanics, neurology and truck fleet safety.

Arnold v. Weatherford U.S., L.P., No. 2012 CCV-62311-4 (Tex. Ct. Law Nueces County).

Kreisman Law Offices has been handling catastrophic injury cases, truck accident cases, motorcycle accident cases, car accident cases and work injury cases for individuals and families who have been harmed, injured or died as a result of the carelessness or negligence of another for more than 40 years in and around Chicago, Cook County and its surrounding areas, including Elk Grove Village, Country Club Hills, Countryside, Crestwood, Crete, Dixmoor, East Hazel Crest, Elgin, Elmwood Park, Lyons, Lynwood, Justice, Kenilworth, LaGrange Park, Harvey, Harwood Heights, Hazel Crest, Glenwood, Palos Heights, Palatine, Schiller Park, Sauk Village, Chicago (Garfield Park, Chinatown, Bronzeville, Bridgeport, Back of the Yards, Avondale, Archer Heights, Lincoln Square, Loyola Park, Wrigleyville), Niles, Joliet and Fox River Grove, Ill.

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