A Decatur lawyer said the egregious actions of a driver who hid after striking his clients’ vehicle helped secure a $1.125 million settlement and avoid litigation, which could have been tricky because of his clients’ immigration status.
Decatur solo Jeremy Citron represented two Mexicans, Ramon Medrano-Ortega and Estela Carrillo-Aragon, in their claims to the insurance company for the alleged hit-and-run driver.
Citron said he was motivated to settle because his clients did not have health insurance and needed further medical treatment. He also was concerned about whether a lawsuit would delay his clients’ ability to recover damages, specifically lost wages.
"My concerns were that they might not be treated as fairly because of their status or that they might be intimidated about getting involved in litigation," he said.
Even though Citron said he believed a jury, even in politically conservative Gwinnett County, would be sympathetic to his clients because of the facts in the case, he also felt it would be a struggle to prove his clients’ income loss because of lack of documentation.
Atlanta immigration lawyer Marshall Lewis Cohen, who is not involved in the case, said it’s not unheard of for defense attorneys in tort cases to "use immigration status as a weapon" by manipulating jury bias or even threatening to report the plaintiff to immigration authorities.
"It’s definitely a liability," Cohen said. "Whether [reporting an undocumented immigrant plaintiff] ends up in someone’s deportation or not, I don’t know. I don’t think a person with no criminal conviction would be an overwhelming enforcement priority for U.S. Customs and Immigration Enforcement."
According to a Gwinnett County police report, the married couple were on their way to church when a commercial street-sweeping truck rammed into the back of their SUV at about 7:40 a.m. on May, 6, 2012. The impact forced the SUV, driven by Medrano, off the interstate. Spinning out of control, the SUV hit a concrete barrier, flipped and came to rest after sliding 125 feet on Dawson Boulevard, which runs parallel to I-85 in Norcross.
The driver of the street sweeper, who was identified as Gregory Jeffery, fled the scene. His converted truck was found about 5 miles away, abandoned at the bottom of an entry ramp to U.S. 78 just west of Mountain Industrial Boulevard in DeKalb County, the police report states.
When investigators caught up with Jeffery at his Lithonia home 12 hours later, he told them he had blacked out just before hitting the SUV.
Citron said he doubted Jeffery suffered from a medical emergency and believed that police also were dubious and therefore charged Jeffery with hit-and-run and following too closely.
The charges are pending in magistrate court, said Jeffery’s criminal defense attorney, Maryann Blend.
"The only one who managed to buy it for a while was the insurance company," said Citron. "I don’t know how far or in-depth they went in their investigation, but they refused to pay the property damage claim until after we got a recorded statement from the investigating officer."
Citron said the accident reconstructionist he hired, Sean Alexander, found vehicle damage and road debris evidence refuting the assertion that a blackout by Jeffery caused the crash.
"How could the driver of the [street sweeping] vehicle make such a good, tight turn at the top of the exit ramp if he was suffering some type of medical event?" Citron said. "He also managed to get several exits over to the ramp in less than a mile. He was moving too fluidly and too fast."
The police report notes that crash data retrieved from Jeffery’s truck showed he sped up from 73 to 76 miles per hour in the seconds before the crash.
After securing the property damage claim, which was less than $8,000, Citron faced another obstacle—pressing for settlement of medical costs, pain and suffering and lost wages.
Medrano suffered significant back injuries, Citron said. An orthopedic surgeon diagnosed Medrano with bilateral pars fractures in his lower back, displaced vertebrae, herniated lumbar disks and possibly herniated cervical disks.
The injuries were expected to cause intractable back and lower extremity pain even if Medrano underwent the two surgeries suggested by the surgeon, Citron said.
Carrillo, the passenger, suffered a closed head injury, which caused vertigo and dizziness for several weeks after the incident, as well as herniated disks in her lower neck, Citron said. She also received a 4-inch gash at her hairline and broken teeth.
Carrillo was not working at the time, but Medrano was earning income as part of an office building cleaning crew.
"He was essentially being paid under the table," Citron said. "There were no tax returns, no W2s, no way to establish the lost income."
Citron said he was able to estimate that Medrano earned $24,000 to $25,000 a year in cash.
"We were able to settle his portion of the claim for $700,000, which encompassed approximately 12 working years of wages, not reduced to present value," said Citron. Settlements for Medrano and Carrillo also included past and anticipated medical expenses as well as pain and suffering. Carrillo’s settlement portion was $425,000.
Medrano’s medical bills not covered by insurance totaled $52,000, and estimates for the back surgeries were $73,172 for lumbar and $66,672.75 for cervical. His wife’s medical bills were $54,000, and her surgery estimate was also $66,672.75, Citron said.