When a litigator wins a multimillion dollar negligence award before a Texas jury, more often than not the verdict is bolstered with punitive damages meant to punish a defendant. But Dallas lawyer Todd Tracy just won a stunning $42 million award in a car wreck case — and not a dime of which was for punitives.
Tracy’s clients, Matthew and Marcia Seebachan, were traveling to Central Texas in 2013 when their Honda Fit was hit head-on by a driver who lost control of his car during a rainstorm. The husband and wife were severely injured in the accident.
The Murphy couple later sued Dallas-based John Eagle Collision Center in a Dallas state district court. The collision center, which performs repairs for one of Texas’ largest Honda dealerships, was sued for negligence after the couple claimed the shop repaired their car’s roof using glue instead of welding it to the car. The couple alleged that the faulty repair compromised the structural integrity of the car, allowing it to catch fire, and caused their injuries.
But during a weeklong trial, the repair shop argued that they were not responsible for the couple’s damages and that their injuries were caused solely by an unavoidable accident.
“They tried to argue that it didn’t matter that they removed 108 welds from the car and that the crash force was so hard that it wouldn’t have made a difference. But we had crash tests showing that 108 welds would have kept the roof intact,’’ Tracy said. “We showed them crash test after crash test and photos.”
What really got the jury angry, Tracy said, was the repair shop failed to follow their own guidelines for repairing vehicles.
“It says always follow vehicle maker procedures,’’ Tracy said of the shop’s repair guidelines. “That means if it left the manufacturing facility welded, you better weld it back. The manual showed them how to weld it, where to weld it, everything. And they just screwed the pooch.’’
The damage awards in the jury’s Oct. 2 verdict for the couple were primarily for their pain and suffering. Tracy noted he didn’t even ask for punitive damages because it wasn’t necessary to win such a high verdict.
“The injuries were horrific,” Tracy said, especially for Matthew Seebachan, who was driving the car. The head of Parkland Hospital’s burn unit treated Seebachan and testified at trial about the extent his excruciatingly painful injuries, Tracy said.
“For the last four years and for the next 17 years, every second of the day, his pain level will be the equivalent of child birth. He had four degree burns to his legs, his nerves were burnt off and they’ll never heal,” Tracy said. Marcia Seebachan received crush injuries to her thorax, arms and legs, he said.
Shortly after the verdict, Tracy’s client settled with John Eagle Collision Center for a confidential amount.
Jaimie Saenz, a partner in Brownsville’s Colvin, Saenz, Rodriguez & Kennamer who represents John Eagle, did not return a call for comment.
In a joint statement released after the verdict, Tracy and the business’ owner, John Eagle, both agreed they would work together to improve safety standards in the nation’s collision repair industry. Tracy acknowledged that Eagle had previously wanted to settle the case, but his insurance carrier elected to proceed to trial.
Tracy said Eagle agreed to donate some original condition cars for further independent crash tests and compare them with cars that have their roofs repaired by glue.
And Tracy has since filed a federal lawsuit against State Farm Insurance in the Eastern District of Texas, which alleges the insurance company pressured Eagle into performing a cheaper repair on the Seebachans’ car in exchange for covering the damage.
“Here’s why they did it. The insurance companies bully these businesses,” Tracy alleges. “And we are going after the insurance companies. “Now it’s time to get the insurance companies to stop bullying repair shops so they can stand up for their customers.’’
Chris Pilcic, a spokesman for State Farm, said the federal lawsuit and the statement released by Tracy and Eagle are not supported by the facts.
“Additionally, they are not in line with State Farm’s mission to serve the needs of our customers and our long, proud history of advancing vehicle safety,” Pilcic said.