A Gwinnett County jury returned a $2.5 million dollar verdict for the death of a young man who was ejected when a vehicle involved in a drag race crashed into a tree. Cases like this involving two alleged wrongdoers and the argument that the victim accepted the risk of their own death are always complex. Let’s break this one down.
The passenger, Marrero (age 17) was a passenger in a 1992 Civic driven by Polo (age 18). Their vehicle began racing a 2007 Mercedes driven by Evancho (age 25). The Civic was insured by a $100,000 policy with GEICO. The Mercedes was insured by a $1.5 million dollar policy. The Civic driver alleged that the Mercedes cut him off at high speed causing him to swerve off the road into the tree. There was no direct eyewitness and the Civic driver could not remember the crash due to a concussion. The sole evidence of the Mercedes cutting off the Civic was the yaw marks in the road and the testimony of the investigating police officer.
Nonetheless, given the death of the passenger, GEICO offered their entire policy limits of $100,000. State Farm denied all liability on behalf of the Mercedes driver and offered nothing.
Georgia has a law that says that the jury may apportion damages to whomever is responsible. One of the choices faced by the plaintiff was to settle with GEICO or not. They elected not to take the money to keep Polo in the case. Otherwise there would have been no one at trial to speak for Polo and it would have been easier for Evancho to put all of the blame on the absentee driver.
The law also allows Evancho to argue that Marrero assumed the risk of injury and death by riding along with Polo. If the jury accepts that defense, then the victim’s family would get nothing at all. In this case the jury did not accept the argument but probably held the value of the life down to $2.5 million. With a blame free victim, one would likely see a verdict in the 4-5 million range. The jury probably altered the numbers to reflect reality as they perceived it.
The jury found that Marrero’s life was valued at $2.5 million under the Georgia wrongful death laws. They then decided that Polo was 60% responsible and Evancho was 40% responsible. After multiplying by the percentages, that means that State Farm has to pay $1,000,000 worth of the verdict for their driver’s 40% responsibility. Geico only has $100,000 available so the remainder of the verdict will go unpaid. State Farm will likely hire another lawyer to file an appeal and continue to complain that there was no contact between the cars. I liken it to a cornerback arguing against his pass interference call for impeding the route of the receiver. You don’t have to have contact, you just can’t cut them off.
This, of course, begs the question; why didn’t State Farm make a decent offer on the case? They assigned in house counsel to the file and stubbornly refused to take any responsibility. I give great credit to a number of their adjusters and lawyers and they assess cases correctly quite often. The one area that I see a blind spot though is in their eagerness to jump on a liability defense and to refuse to adjust that assessment as the case progresses.
When you have a large damages case and a denial of liability, litigation is often the best answer as depositions can turn up facts that would otherwise go undiscovered.