Orlando P. Ojeda Jr. (left) and Chadwick R. Walker of Walker Ojeda (Courtesy photo) Orlando P. Ojeda Jr. (left) and Chadwick R. Walker of Walker Ojeda (Courtesy photo)

A DeKalb County jury delivered a post-apportioned award of more than $1.9 million to a trucker injured when a shipment of merchandise he was unloading at a Stein Mart department store collapsed on him.

The accident happened nearly nine years ago, and the plaintiff’s attorneys said the case was complicated for two reasons: Their client’s injuries were not immediately apparent, and a workers’ compensation doctor said surgery was unnecessary in the months following the incident.

“This was a hard-fought case, and it’s taken a long time to get to trial,” said Chad Walker, who represented the plaintiff with Walker Ojeda partner Orlando Ojeda Jr., with the assistance of his wife and colleague Jennifer Ojeda.  

Orlando Ojeda said plaintiff Jeffrey Day, now 51, ultimately required multiple surgeries, including two spinal fusions. He is still undergoing pain management treatment and epidural injections and was deemed medically unfit to drive a truck.

Walker said the defense had rejected pretrial demands to settle the case for $1.9 million, almost exactly the sum remaining after the jury’s $2.7 million award was reduced by 30 percent, the responsibility apportioned to the plaintiff and his former employer.

The defendants, APL Logistics Warehouse Management and APL Logistics Americas Ltd., are represented by Stone Kalfus partners Matthew Stone and Shawn Kalfus. Stone said he did not have permission to discuss the case.

As detailed by the plaintiff’s lawyers and court filings, Day was a driver for a company contracted to pick up pre-loaded trailers of merchandise at a Stein Mart distribution center operated by APL and deliver them to stores.

The loads were divided into three sections separated by plywood barriers, and at each stop, one portion would be dropped off and the trailer resealed for the trip to the next store.

Day, who served as driver and freight handler, was placing boxes on a roller conveyor at the second of three stops when the load shifted, and at least two boxes fell on him.

Day was in Tennessee at the time, and although he was in pain, he completed his deliveries and slept overnight in his truck’s sleeper compartment.

The next day he sought medical treatment, and there was evidence of bruising on his neck and back, the lawyers said.

As the pain continued, Day filed a workers’ compensation claim with his employer, Schneider National Carriers, that “progressed through objections” and settled in 2011, Orlando Ojeda said.

Day was restricted to light duty and let go by Schneider, he said.

As the pain worsened, Day retained new counsel and sued APL in DeKalb County State Court in 2012.

“Initially Stein Mart was involved, but they were adjudicated as not liable,” Walker said. “There was a bunch of litigation,” including a detour into federal court that Day’s lawyers were able to have reversed.

During a mediation some time ago, Walker said, the highest defense offer to settle was for about $300,000, which was declined.

“We did have some discussions about a second mediation, but we never could really get any clarity,” Ojeda said. “They had asked if we would create a hi-low bracket, but we weren’t budging.”

“Our position was that we thought [the case’s] valuation was $1.9 million,” said Walker. “I’m not claiming any gift of foresight, but that was our bottom number.”

During a six-day trial before Judge Wayne Purdom, Day’s team presented evidence of past medical bills totaling more than $350,000, and past and future lost wages of nearly $800,000.

The plaintiff’s arguments centered on claims that the defendants’ employees were negligent in loading and securing the trailer.

The defense portion of the pretrial order said Day had suffered no apparent injury when the boxes fell on him and “finished finished unloading at the second stop, without incident, and then drove to the third stop where he unloaded hundreds more boxes, without incident, until the trailer was empty.”

APL denied negligence and said Day’s “claimed injuries and damages were not caused by the alleged incident or are not as extensive as [he] claims,” it said.

Day’s lawyers said key plaintiff’s witnesses included Day’s treating physician Craig Chebuhar, trucking expert Lew Grill of Billings, Montana, and economist Francis Rushing.

Defense experts included trucking consultant Michael Connelly of Prosperity, S.C., and mechanical expert Brian Boggess of Charlotte, they said.

At closing, Walker and Orlando Ojeda said they asked the jury to award $4.5 million, while the defense suggested a range from zero to about $300,000.   

The jury began deliberations Friday afternoon then returned Saturday to continue.

After about seven total hours of deliberations , they awarded $2,766,272 in damages, apportioning 20 percent of the fault to Day and 10 percent to Schneider, for an award of $1,936,390.

Walker and Ojeda said the jurors didn’t stick around to discuss their decision.

“They wanted to go home,” Walker said. “They all kind of smiled slightly and hustled on out: ‘See you later, it’s Saturday.’”