(San Diego, CA) Managing Partner of WSHB’s San Diego office, Wyeth Burrows, commanded the court as he secured a defense verdict on behalf of a trucking company and its driver. 

In this case, plaintiff brought suit for injuries resulting from a rollover collision. The co-defendant was contracted to haul large metal water pipes. The co-defendant's employee recognized that the load was difficult to secure due to various pipes of different sizes having been placed on a flatbed trailer by their client. While en route, the employee failed to stop within 50 miles of starting his journey to re-check the securement of the load, a requirement under the law. When a pipe fell onto I-5 southbound in Los Angeles on a dark January 2018 morning, the employee was apparently unaware.

Sometime later, our client was traveling on the I-5 freeway in a tractor-trailer and approaching the area where the pipe had fallen off the co-defendant’s truck. Our client was to the left of and passing Plaintiff’s vehicle when our client saw the pipe in the road. Our client braked and attempted to hold his lane, consistent with his training not to swerve for non-human road hazards. Nonetheless, our client struck the pipe and then entered Plaintiff’s lane, causing the Plaintiff’s vehicle to lose control and overturn. Our driver admitted he was driving 3-5 mph over the speed limit and was faulted by the CHP for causing the collision. Plaintiff was transported from the scene to the hospital and began a course of treatment with orthopedic, pain management, and neurosurgery experts.

At trial, the co-defendant presented evidence from a witness that our client was traveling at least 10 mph over the speed limit, made an unsafe lane change causing the collision, and admitted fault. The co-defendant further argued that the pipe was not involved in the collision and that our truck driver’s errant lane change caused the collision. The evidence was used to demonstrate that our client’s excessive speed undermined his ability to stop in time and/or maneuver to an open lane on his left instead of hitting the pipe, which at least two other truck drivers had done before the collision.

Reflecting on the impact of the witness’s testimony, Mr. Burrows observed “the witness’s testimony about our driver going 10 mph over the speed limit at the time of the collision and later admitting fault at the scene was a surprise. That information had not come out in discovery. Ultimately, it appeared the attorney for our co-defendant kept that testimony under wraps and thought it would carry the day at trial. It didn’t. The jury discounted that witness’s testimony and ultimately understood the true cause of the collision – a pipe dropped in the middle of a dark highway. After the verdict, the jurors shared that they thought evidence of speeding might have demonstrated negligence, but that negligence was not a substantial factor in causing the collision. The jury got it right, and in fact, concluded by a vote of 9-3 that our client was not negligent at all notwithstanding the evidence of excessive speed.”

The jury was moved by Plaintiff’s closing argument and counsel asked for $3.1 million. Our argument centered on the sudden emergency doctrine and that our driver’s decision to strike the object instead of swerving was not negligent even if a different course of action (moving to the open lane on the left) would have been a safer decision, and that the witness’s testimony about our driver driving well above the speed limit and hitting plaintiff due to a negligent lane change was not in agreement with the physical evidence identified by the CHP and should not be believed. The jury found the co-defendant and its driver solely responsible for the collision, awarding $1.7M in damages against a defendant with just $1M in insurance coverage. Our client was absolved of any liability.

Our client issued a statutory offer for $130,000 to resolve Plaintiff’s claims, which offer was rejected. Accordingly, we will be seeking recovery of post-offer expert fees and costs against Plaintiff. Additionally, the co-defendant denied various requests for admissions of liability in written discovery, so we will bring a motion for an order allowing recovery of the costs of proving the co-defendant’s liability for the accident, including attorney fees.

Congratulations, Wyeth!

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