A Gwinnett County jury declined to hold a trucking company driver liable for the death of a man killed when a box truck crossed the center line and rammed a car after being hit by another vehicle during a nasty three-vehicle wreck in 2005.
“This case has been around a long time,” said Swift, Curry, McGhee & Hiers partner Roger Harris, who represented co-defendant Allied Van Lines, noting that the trial was first delayed by a trip to the Georgia Court of Appeals, and then reset by a mistrial.
“I got called the day of the accident, so I’ve been there since day one,” Harris said. “It’s satisfying to finally get this case to trial.”
“We knew we had a tough case going in on liability,” said lead plaintiff’s counsel Pete Law, whose case was complicated by the trial judge’s refusal to keep out evidence that the driver who hit the truck—and was not a party to the case—had pleaded guilty to vehicular homicide, a ruling subsequently upheld by an appellate panel.
“The defense counsel did an excellent job pointing out that the state trooper [who investigated the accident] found that their guy did not contribute to the wreck at all,” Law said.
“To say this was a hard-fought victory is about half as strong as I feel about it,” said Lewis Brisbois Bisgaard & Smith partner R. Scott Masterson, who came on as co-defense counsel along with firm partner Edward Rowlen as the case moved toward trial. “I thought it was a well-tried case by top-notch plaintiffs’ lawyers.”
The wreck occurred at about 6 a.m. on Aug. 4, 2005, on Georgia Highway 20 in Cartersville. A GMC Savana driven by Jason Green was traveling east and crossed the center line, according to both sides’ accounts in the retrial order, clipping a westbound box truck driven by Nekia Ramey.
Ramey lost control and the truck crossed the center line, hitting a Ford Taurus driven by Jimmy Woods that had been traveling east behind Green’s van.
The impact drove Woods’ car back more than 64 feet, according to the plaintiff’s portion of the order, before it flipped and came to rest. Ramey’s truck traveled another 370 feet before stopping, it said.
Woods, 53, was trapped in the car’s wreckage and lived for about another 30 minutes while rescuers tried to free him.
Green was cited and pleaded guilty to charges of failure to maintain lane and second degree vehicular homicide. He and his employer, B&W Mechanical Contractors, reached what Law said was a “substantial” confidential settlement with Woods’ widow and executor, Donnie Woods.
In 2007, Chambers Aholt partner Douglas Aholt and Marietta solo Ronald Lowry filed a negligence suit on Donnie Woods’ behalf in Gwinnett County State Court naming Ramey and the company he was working for, Berger Transfer & Storage; Berger’s partner company, Allied Van Lines Inc.; and two insurers as defendants.
The suit said Ramey negligently “caused and/or contributed to a collision with a third-party vehicle,” then “negligently reacted to said incident and steered his vehicle across the center line,” causing the accident that killed Jimmy Woods.
As trial was approaching in 2011, Woods’ attorneys filed a motion in limine seeking to exclude Green’s traffic citations and guilty pleas from evidence or testimony. Gwinnett County State Court Judge Carla Brown denied the motion, and in July 2012 the Georgia Court of Appeals upheld the ruling.
On interlocutory appeal, Judge Michael Boggs wrote for the panel that Georgia’s 2005 apportionment statute “provides, in pertinent part: ‘The following admissions by third persons, strangers to a suit, shall be received in evidence … (2) Admissions by a third person which are against his interest, as to a fact collateral to the main issue between the litigants but essential to the adjudication of the cause.’ The main issue presented in this action is not, as Woods contends, ‘who is at fault for causing the death of Jimmy Ray Woods.’ The only issue between litigants here is the negligence and thus the liability of the defendants for their part in the collision.”
While Green may bear fault for the accident, said Boggs’ order, he was not subject to any liability in the suit.
“The question of Green’s percentage of fault is therefore merely ‘collateral to the main issue’ of the defendants’ negligence and liability, but is ‘essential to the adjudication of the cause due to the language of the apportionment statute.’” (Woods v. Allied Van Lines, 316 Ga. App. 548.)
There was subsequent, unsuccessful mediation, Masterson said.
“When it was clear we were going to trial, both sides filed offers of settlement,” he said. “Ours was $200,000; theirs was $500,000.”
Three days into trial in September, Masterson said, Brown granted a mistrial when the plaintiff’s lawyers offered new evidence conflicting with the earlier deposition testimony of a former Georgia State Patrol officer concerning his 2005 accident reconstruction report. The officer opined for the first time that Ramey had been exceeding the speed limit by about 20 miles per hour at the time of the wreck.
The new trial started Nov. 18, with Law and Law & Moran colleague Edward Piasta and Aholt at the plaintiff’s table. Masterson and Rowlen represented Berger, Ramey and their insurer, ACE America, while Harris and firm associate Shannon Hinson represented Allied in what Masterson termed a “united defense.”
The key plaintiff’s expert was Tom Langley, a former Cobb County police officer and accident reconstruction expert, Masterson said. The defense called reconstruction expert and mechanical engineer Joe Smith, he said.
At the end of the four-day trial, Masterson said, Law asked the jury to award $30 million in damages. The trial lasted most of four days, he said, and on Nov. 22 the jury took about three or four hours to find for the defense.
“It was very satisfying to … have the jurors tell us afterwards that they focused on the physical evidence and the science to conclude the Mr. Ramey and the corporate defendants were not negligent,” said Harris.
Masterson said he didn’t speak to the jurors afterward.
“I think the jury determined that, at the end of the day, there was nothing Mr. Ramey could have done to prevent Mr. Green from crossing the center line and knocking him out of control,” he said.
“We still believe that the second defendant was speeding, but the trooper said that had nothing to do with Mr. Woods’ wreck,” said Law. “Even our expert conceded that had Green not crossed the line, the wreck would have never happened.”
The case is Woods v. Allied Van Lines, No. 07C-06459-3.