A California jury has awarded a former college student more than $49 million in damages, after finding two truckers and the state liable for a 2007 accident that left him severely brain damaged.
In May 2007, Drew Bianchi was a passenger in a car with three companions headed for a camping trip. Two trucks collided on a perilous two-lane mountain pass about 25 miles south of San Jose, Calif. One of the trucks struck the car Bianchi was riding in, crushing the section of the car where he was seated.
Bianchi, now 23, requires around-the-clock care and lives in a residential facility near his family in Bakersfield, Calif.
Co-plaintiff’s counsel Randall Scarlett said reckless driving by the two truck drivers was the main factor in the accident.
Jurors deliberated for two days following a five-week trial before finding that one of the drivers, Samuel Bimbela, bore 60 percent of the responsibility for the crash. His employer, Salazar Construction, argued that Bimbela was acting outside the scope of his employment at the time of the accident, so Bimbela faced trial alone.
The other driver, Michael Demma, and his employer, Gordon Trucking, were held 35 percent responsible.
The jury found the state was 5 percent at fault due to the dangerous condition of the roadway.
The 12-person jury awarded Bianchi $31 million for past and future medical expenses; $4.5 million for future lost wages and $13.5 million for past and future noneconomic losses, including pain and suffering.
The defendants are severally liable for the general damages, and jointly and severally liable for the economic damages.
Salazar Trucking, which employed Bimbela, settled before the trial for $2 million. The state settled for $10 million. The combined verdicts and settlements mean that Bianchi will receive a total of about $61 million.
Bimbela’s attorney, John Simonson, declined comment.
In a statement, Gordon Trucking said that its driver “did nothing to cause or contribute to the accident or Mr. Bianchi’s injuries.”
“This accident was caused by another truck driver falling asleep, crossing the center line, impacting [Gordon Trucking’s] truck and striking the car that Drew Bianchi was riding in two cars behind [Gordon Trucking],” the statement said.
The company claimed that although Bimbela was apportioned 60 percent of the fault, his employer carried minimal levels of insurance and he and his employer will pay only about 4 percent of the award.
“Gordon Trucking, Inc., a responsible motor carrier with higher levels of insurance, has become the target of [a] plaintiff and plaintiff’s attorneys seeking to pick [its] ‘deep pockets,’” the company charged.
The $49 million verdict is one of the largest in Santa Clara County, Calif. in decades. But Scarlett said the amount of the award was reasonable considering the lifetime of care that Bianchi will require.
“This jury understood the terrible cost of care that’s associated with traumatic brain injury,” he said.
‘Woeful inattention’ blamed for crash
Under California law, jurors were not informed of the pre-trial settlements.
Scarlett said because the state was not there to defend itself, the remaining defendants – Bimbela and Gordon Trucking and its driver, Demma – did everything they could to blame state highway officials for the accident.
“The defendants put on one heck of a case against the state of California,” he said.
In his rebuttal argument, Scarlett agreed that the stretch of roadway where the accident occurred is dangerous. The lanes and shoulders are narrow, there is no middle rumble strip and accidents occur there frequently.
But it was the two drivers’ “woeful inattention” that caused the accident, he said.
A California forestry firefighter who witnessed the collisions testified that he drives the route regularly and drivers have to be “hyper-vigilant” on that section of the road.
“Accidents there are frequent,” Scarlett said. “We knew this, but so did those drivers.”
The two trucks collided near the center line of the two-lane highway. According to Scarlett, Bimbela’s truck first drifted across the center line and triggered the accident. Demma, who was talking on his cell phone, then crashed into Bimbela’s truck.
Gordon Trucking in its statement noted that its driver, Demma, was using a hands-free cell phone and disputed the plaintiff’s contention that he should have responded sooner to get out of the way of the oncoming vehicle in his lane.
But Scarlett told the jurors that because Demma was talking on his cell phone, he was distracted and shared responsibility for the accident.
“We’ve gone one driver on his cell phone for 30 minutes prior to the accident and at the moment of impact,” Scarlett said. “I said, ‘Ladies and gentlemen, they are both at fault.’”
As for Bimbela, the plaintiff’s lawyers introduced evidence that he had ignored orders from his employer to check into a hotel and get sufficient sleep before resuming his drive from southern California to San Jose.
Instead, Scarlett said, Bimbela stayed in a hotel for only three hours and then got back on the road.
In addition to the three vehicles involved in the accident, there were several vehicles driven by witnesses. And everyone involved had a different version of what occurred.
The plaintiff’s lawyers opted for a decidedly low-tech approach to reconstructing the accident so that jurors could decide for themselves who was telling the truth.
“We had a magnetic board with cutouts for each of the vehicles,” Scarlett recounted. “And each of the witnesses put those magnets wherever they wanted to. It was up to the jury to sort it out.”
Trucking accident and mechanical reconstruction experts explained how the accident occurred. And medical experts for the plaintiff used high-tech graphics to show the several brain surgeries that Bianchi has undergone.
“We walked the jury through some complex medical issues,” Scarlett said. “But I am convinced they understand the injury.
“As I told the jury, one can lose an arm, one can lose a leg. But there is no prosthetic device for his brain. And he is certainly aware that he is trapped in a body that doesn’t work.”
Jurors saw a video demonstrating the progress Bianchi is making at the rehabilitation center. And Bianchi was in the courtroom – in a wheelchair – for about 45 minutes of the trial.
Bringing Bianchi into the courtroom was a difficult decision, but Scarlett and his co-trial counsel Thomas Malone decided that as a plaintiff, “Drew has every right to see his jury, and every right to be there.”
Malone and Scarlett have worked closely before in other traumatic brain injury cases.
The two attorneys divided responsibilities equally, with Malone presenting the closing argument, Scarlett giving the rebuttal and the pair splitting up direct and cross-examinations.