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It was Thanksgiving morning of 2000 and 17-year-old Shannon Houchin was on her way to her job at a McDonald’s in rural Kentucky. As she crested a hill on a narrow country road, she saw a garbage truck, operated by Monarch Environmental Inc. of Bowling Green, Ky., stopped in her lane on the wrong side of the road, at the bottom. Seconds later, her car swerved into the truck. Two years later, Houchin was awarded more than $27 million in damages by a jury for the injuries she suffered that day. Her lawyers are calling the award — issued last week — one of the largest in a personal injury case in Kentucky history. “It sounds like a lot of money, but most of it will go for Shannon’s future needs,” said one of her attorneys, Tyler Thompson of Dolt, Thompson, Shepherd & Kinney in Louisville, Ky. “She has a life expectancy of 61.6 more years.” The six-week negligence case was tried in Warren County Circuit Court in Bowling Green. Houchin v. Republic Services and Monarch Environmental, No. 01-CI-00072. Co-counsel Liz Shepherd said a key to the case was the “grievous conduct of the defendant” in arguing that Houchin was speeding and should have been able to avoid the crash. The jury found that the truck and its operator were 100 percent responsible for the accident, which left Houchin, who was 17 at the time, in a coma for 57 days. Houchin was also disfigured, walks with a limp, has double vision and lost her short-term memory, among other injuries. David Broderick, the lead attorney for Republic Services, the Louisville company that owns Monarch, did not return calls seeking comment. Published reports said the company would appeal the verdict. The jury awarded more than $1.34 million for current and future loss of income; almost $11.2 million for pain, suffering and mental anguish; nearly $500,000 for medical expenses to date, and more than $14 million for future medical care. KENTUCKY TREND? An even larger Kentucky jury award — for $270 million — came in October in a personal injury case against a gas company, leading some observers to wonder if there is a trend to larger awards in the state. In that case, a coal miner was badly burned after gas from an old well seeped into his shower and exploded. That verdict is expected to be appealed. But the plaintiff’s attorney in that case, Gary Johnson of Pikeville, Ky., doubted there was any trend, calling Kentucky “a pretty conservative state” when it came to jury verdicts. He noted that his case was unusual in that the jury was “trying to get somebody’s attention on the well problem,” which had turned into an “environmental disaster” in the state. In the Houchin case, Thompson and Shepherd said there had been many complaints from local residents about garbage trucks parking in the wrong lane while loading, and several near misses. “One witness testified that he would have hit the garbage truck if he hadn’t swerved, and that was just five minutes before the Houchin crash,” Thompson said. “The company’s own training tapes said drivers should not go left of the center line.” Shepherd said Houchin, of Smiths Grove, Ky., tried to pass the truck on the left but a garbage worker was standing in the left lane. She applied the brakes, but the driver’s side of her 1988 Honda slid into the truck. Shepherd added that doctors described her client as “among the top two or three most brain-damaged people they had ever seen.” A number of expert witnesses testified in the case, including neuropsychiatrists and neuropsychologists, rehabilitation experts, vocational and medical economists, a life-care planner and an accident reconstructionist. Thompson said one unusual aspect of the trial was that Judge Thomas Lewis didn’t instruct the jury about punitive damages. All the money awarded was for compensatory damages. He thought that might be one basis for an appeal.

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