A jury verdict of $21 million that was awarded to an Indiana drunk driving injury plaintiff, who is quadriplegic as a result of the collision, has been affirmed by the Indiana Court of Appeals, which refused defendants’ request for a new trial. It is one of the largest personal injury damage awards in history. The original award, $35 million, was reduced upon a finding of comparative fault by the plaintiff.
Plaintiff and defendant worked together at a local restaurant chain and frequently drank together, which is what they did after work one night in February 2016. The two became so impaired that an employee asked plaintiff to leave, and the two exited together. The employee called a taxi for the pair. But as the taxi pulled in, the pair exited the parking lot, defendant at the wheel of his pickup truck, plaintiff in the passenger seat. Minutes later, defendant crashed into a tree, the impact breaking plaintiff’s neck, rendering him quadriplegic, with no sensation or control from the neck down. Defendant’s blood-alcohol concentration was measured at 0.208 an hour after the crash.
Drunk driving injury lawsuits bring to the forefront a sobering reality with which our Munster injury attorneys are all too familiar. Here in Lake County, Indiana, the Indiana Criminal Justice Institute reports there were 345 alcohol-impaired collisions in 2016, roughly 2 percent of the total but accounting for a disproportionate percentage of fatal crashes (10 percent) and injurious crashes (4 percent) . Statewide, the Indiana University Public Policy Institute reveals 83 crash deaths in 2016 involved a driver who was illegally impaired by alcohol (down from 177 in 2012). Alcohol was more likely a factor in single-vehicle crashes than multiple-vehicle collisions, and impairment rates were highest among drivers of pickup trucks.
Plaintiff initially collected $5,000 in medical payments from his own auto insurance company (which denied coverage for bodily injury liability where its insured was the injured party). He then reached a settlement with the auto insurer of the driver’s parents, as well as with the liability insurer for the restaurant where the men drank that night. He assigned whatever bad faith insurance claim he might have against his own insurer to the driver’s parents’ insurer. Plaintiff then filed a personal injury lawsuit against the driver seeking both compensatory and punitive damages, and defendant raised a non-party defense against the restaurant (meaning they could be apportioned fault, but would not have to pay, as their insurer had already settled).
The jury verdict in December 2017 found the restaurant 5 percent at-fault, plaintiff passenger 35 percent at-fault and defendant driver 60 percent at fault. No punitive damages were awarded.
Defendant appealed, arguing the trial court didn’t give him a fair trial on the issue of liability. In particular, he argued it was error for the court to allow jurors to hear of his own prior bad conduct while not revealing plaintiff’s criminal history. Defendant had stated during the pre-trial deposition he’d driven intoxicated prior to the crash, even though he had no prior convictions for it. Plaintiff meanwhile had previously been convicted of public intoxication, reckless driving and battery and was on probation at the time of the crash. Defense’s theory was that because of this fact, plaintiff insisted on defendant driving (though neither man actually remembers the conversation). Plaintiff sought to suppress that evidence in a motion the trial court granted.
The appellate court disagreed this was error, noting trial courts have broad discretion in determining admissibility of evidence and there was no plain error. Plaintiff’s own criminal history had nothing to do with the proximate cause of his injuries. Further, defendant had admitted fault, but argued his percentage of fault wasn’t any greater than plaintiff’s or the restaurant’s.
The court noted both plaintiff and defendant were seen in the eyes of the jury as “birds of a feather” due to their willingness to drink and drive, which they reportedly did together repeatedly in the months leading up to the crash.
Despite this, it’s far from clear whether plaintiff will actually collect anything close to the $21 million verdict. Munster car accident attorneys understand that’s often the situation in these claims because one can usually only collect from the insurance policies available. Soon after the verdict, plaintiff’s underinsured motorist policy paid a sum in accordance with this verdict.
Those who suffer serious injuries as a result of an Indiana drunk driving accident, Lake County or elsewhere, should contact an experienced injury lawyer as soon as possible.
Indiana Injury Attorney Burton A. Padove handles personal injury claims throughout northern Indiana, including Highland, Gary and Hammond. Call Toll Free 877-446-5294.
Clayton v. Smith, Oct. 26, 2018, Indiana Court of Appeals
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Indiana Road Rage Injuries Can be Compensable in Injury Lawsuit, Oct. 4, 2018, Munster Car Accident Attorney Blog