In 2017, a California man named Dennis Perez crossed into oncoming traffic while driving, crashing into Victor Montez. At the scene of the crash, where Mr. Montez suffered life threatening head and neck injuries, Mr. Perez did not immediately call 911. When police officers did arrive, a deputy later testified that Mr. Perez was unable to walk without staggering, two hours following the crash. Although he originally told officers he hit a puddle and hydroplaned into Mr. Montez’s car, Mr. Perez later pleaded guilty to a felony DUI.
Mr. Montez and his wife, Lisa, filed a personal injury lawsuit against Mr. Perez in 2018. Rex Parris, founder of the Parris Law Firm, represented the Victor Montez in the lawsuit. Mr. Perez’s auto insurer, MetLife, defended the claim vigorously over five years. The insurer argued that Mr. Montez’s driving was also at fault because he had a single beer earlier in the evening. In 2019, Mr. Montez’s lawyer made a $5.5 million dollar settlement demand, which MetLife rejected. The insurer offered $25,000, Mr. Perez’s policy limit.
Over the course of eight days, starting June 21, 2023, the jury heard testimony from twenty-eight experts as well as lay witnesses regarding the conditions on the day of the crash, the physics of the accident, Mr. Perez’s actions and level of intoxication, and the extent and impact of Mr. Montez’s injuries on his life and family. Throughout the trial, MetLife pursued a comparative fault defense against Mr. Montez, disputing the extent that which Mr. Perez’s actions contributed to Mr. Montez’s injuries, and raising the question of why Mr. Montez was not present at the trial.
In Rex Parris’ closing argument, he reminded the courtroom that Mr. Perez had not only failed to call 911 at the scene of the crash, but that the defense’s own witnesses had admitted that Mr. Perez was extremely drunk. Mr. Parris also reminded the jury that Mr. Perez had told officers he was expecting a text while he was driving, and had stopped cooperating with the discovery process when asked for his cell phone records. The plaintiff’s argument hit not only on the extent of Mr. Montez’s injuries and Mr. Perez’s callousness but also the defense’s lack of cooperation throughout the process of litigation.
An Unusual Verdict
Following closing arguments, the plaintiffs moved for a directed verdict on the question of comparative fault, which Judge Stephen Czuleger granted. This is very unusual in tort law, as fault is almost always considered a question of fact for the jury. The judge ruled that the plaintiffs had established that Mr. Montez was driving below the speed limit and that the defendant’s intoxication was so clear, that the jury did not need to consider the question of comparative fault.
The plaintiff’s attorney, Mr. Parris attributed the rare verdict partly to the insurer’s aggressive defense of the claim. Under California insurance law, because MetLife rejected the initial settlement demand, the plaintiff’s attorney is also entitled to attorneys’ fees in addition to the damages award.
Although this case presented an unusually clear-cut case of undisputed, heavy intoxication as the cause of the motor vehicle accident, the plaintiff’s attorneys can glean lessons from the litigation strategy presented in the case. While an aggressive posture presented by defense attorneys can make pursuing lengthy litigation daunting, it can backfire on the defense. MetLife’s defense posture is similar to the aggressive litigation strategies that we have seen in high-profile tobacco, pharmaceutical, and consumer product liability cases where juries have awarded significant punitive damages. Plaintiff’s attorneys should not be afraid to incorporate this potential weakness into their litigation strategy, pushing back on low offers and encouraging insurance attorneys to consider how jurors may view these tactics. If prolonged litigation has taken a toll on the plaintiff, attorneys can incorporate this information into the narrative they build throughout the trial. Attorneys may also cite this case when moving for a directed verdict on comparative fault issues. The caption in Los Angeles County Superior Court is Victor Montez v. Dennis Perez, case number MC027758.