On August 18, 2006, a couple left their home early for a vacation to Pigeon Forge, Tennessee. As the couple drove their car north on Interstate 59 near Fort Payne, Alabama, they encountered a tractor-trailer rig traveling in the same direction. As the husband attempted to pass the tractor-trailer, it moved into the left lane and forced the couple’s vehicle off the highway. While there was no actual contact between his car and the truck, the husband lost control of his car. It barrel-rolled several times.
Due to the severity of the crash, the husband suffered a dislocation and fracture of his spine that resulted in paralysis from his shoulders to his toes. Fortunately, the wife only suffered a minor arm injury. The husband was taken to a Birmingham hospital where surgery was performed to stabilize his spinal injury. Thirteen days later, he suffered a heart attack and died.
When the wife came to our office and requested assistance, we knew a major challenge in a wrongful death claim would be the issue of medical causation. Could we establish that the spinal cord injury caused or contributed to the heart attack which ultimately took his life? We employed Dr. Jim Lauridson, a former deputy chief medical examiner for the State of Alabama, to assist us in this case. In his fifteen years as a medical examiner, Dr. Lauridson had determined the cause of death in over 4,000 cases. After reviewing the UAB Hospital records and medical records from other treating doctors, Dr. Lauridson’s medical opinion was that the spinal cord injury caused both physical and mental stress which caused the husband’s fatal heart attack.
Once we began reviewing the trucking company’s records and the driver’s personnel file and other records, it became quite clear there were discrepancies in the driver’s logs. The driver of the tractor-trailer was from Kenya, Africa, and he had come to the United States seeking political asylum in 1995. He had been the director of veterinary medicine in Kenya, prior to coming to the United States. He had worked for PFG-Lester Broadline, Inc. for four years prior to a promotion which resulted in his being sent to truck driving school in 2000.
We were able, by way of discovery, to learn that the company’s driver had received six speeding tickets between 1998 and 2006 and one ticket for improper passing. Based upon the company’s own Policy and Procedure Manual, the driver should not have been operating a truck on the date of the wreck. Further, during the discovery phase of the case, the driver admitted to copying his logbook from his prior week’s driver logs. At the time of the wreck, the driver was assigned a route which took him from Nashville, Tennessee to Chattanooga – then to Gadsden – and then back to Nashville.
The driver admitted that he did not keep his driver’s log contemporaneously as he drove each day even though that is required by the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Regulations. Under company policy, the driver was required to turn in his driver’s logs weekly. The driver admitted that he would copy the log from the prior week before he would turn in his logs. He had followed this illegal practice for approximately one year before this wreck occurred.
Further, it became evident that this company did not have an auditing system in place to discover discrepancies in drivers’ logs. The company’s representatives testified that each route given to a driver would be such that the driver would not violate excessive hours driving pursuant to the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Regulations. However, the company’s auditing program failed to monitor any violation other than excessive hours. This case was settled prior to trial during mediation for $2.5 million. Mike Crow from our firm handled the case, which was filed in the United States District Court for the Middle District of Alabama, and did an outstanding job. We felt that Dr. Lauridson’s very good work on the medical causation issue was extremely important in this case.
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