The Facts of the Case
The girl was only nine months old when her father died in a car accident involving a garbage truck in Flatbush. The girl’s father was riding in the passenger seat of a friend’s BMW. The friend, who had been drinking, crashed the BMW into a 40-foot garbage truck on Utica Avenue. The crash killed two passengers, the girl’s father and another passenger in the back seat. The driver survived.
The driver pleaded guilty to aggravated manslaughter after the accident and served a seven-year prison sentence connected to the crash. A judge found, however, that the driver of the garbage truck was also at fault, having made an unsafe turn that contributed to the collision.
The COVID-19 pandemic and other events delayed the related wrongful death case for several years. At trial, questions of fault arose, as well as questions about damages. One issue was whether the girl’s deceased father had experienced pain and suffering in the immediate aftermath of the crash.
At trial, the 9-year-old took the stand to discuss her current activities and life without her father. The latter topic moved her to tears in front of the jury. The girl’s mother, who was engaged to the girl’s father at the time of the crash, described him as doting on their baby from her birth until his death.
The Terms of the Settlement
The 19-day trial ended as the sanitation company offered a $4 million settlement shortly before jury deliberations began. The driver of the BMW also paid $50,000 in damages under the limits of his insurance coverage. The award covers several losses, including the “loss of parental guidance” the girl suffered with the loss of her father.
The case does not cover damages for the backseat passenger, who was unrelated to the girl or her father and who also died in the crash. That passenger’s family settled their claim several years ago for $300,000.
The terms of the settlement call for the girl to receive the money over the course of several years, beginning at age 18. However, the girl’s mother has asked the court to release some funds sooner so the girl can receive tutoring and guitar lessons. She plans to use the bulk of the money to send her daughter to college.
Takeaways for Attorneys
A crash in which a drunk driver rams another vehicle may feel, on its surface, like an open and shut case of fault. As this case demonstrates, however, the question of fault should never be closed without interrogation.
In this case, security camera footage of the collision helped lay the groundwork for an argument that the BMW driver did not bear 100 percent of the fault in the crash, despite being intoxicated.
Similarly, this case demonstrates that juries may not automatically accept the testimony of expert witnesses over that of lay witnesses. Here, an expert’s testimony that the girl’s father was unconscious immediately after the crash contested with EMT testimony that the man was conscious and spoke to them in the moments after the crash. Knowing where to deploy experts for maximum effectiveness is essential in litigation.
Finally, attorneys gain much by never discounting the emotional impact of a case. Here, the girl’s own testimony before the jury likely had a profound impact on establishing the magnitude of her loss - as well as the loss experienced by a father who never got to see the person his daughter has become.