At first glance, the huge $89.6 million jury verdict Eric Penn and Zollie Steakley recently won against a trucking company seemed like an easy sell because of the horrific injuries their clients endured—a family had to bury one child and provide lifetime, 24-hour medical care for another after an 18-wheeler slammed into them on a frozen west Texas highway.
But proving that Werner Enterprises and its truck drivers were negligent for an accident that resulted in the death of seven-year-old Zack Blake and left 12-year-old Brianna “Destiny” Blake a quadriplegic proved to be quite difficult at trial because of how the accident happened, the plaintiff lawyers explained.
Werner, for its part, continues to deny liability.
“The biggest struggle in the case is when you first hear the facts. They were passengers in a vehicle that lost control on black ice and went in front of the truck,’’ said Penn, a Jacksonville attorney who represents the Blake family, including mother Jennifer Blake and her oldest son Nathan, who also received traumatic injuries during the 2014 wreck on an icy Interstate 20 near Midland.
“The big question was the initial knee-jerk reaction of, ‘what did a truck driver do wrong when a passenger vehicle loses control in front of them?’” Penn said. “We spent three years in litigation and a six-week trial to answer that question.’’
“It’s one of those cases that, the first time you hear it, you think, ‘I don’t know if there’s anything we can do to help’,” said Steakley, a Waco attorney who tried the case along with Penn, his friend whom he met while they both attended Baylor University Law School. “But the more you dig and the more you realize the rules that were broken, … it becomes a very worthy case.’’
At trial, Werner denied that its drivers did anything wrong, contended that the accident was unavoidable, and alleged that sole responsibility for the wreck was on Zaragoza Salinas, the driver of the pickup truck in which the Blakes were traveling.
But Penn and Steakley argued that the Werner truck was driven by a trainee driver who failed to follow standard commercial driver license rules requiring truck drivers to slow their vehicles during icy conditions.
“They are supposed to slow down to a crawl, which is defined as 15 miles per hour, and the driver is supposed to exit the highway when it’s safe to do so. This trucking company never taught its driver those rules,” Penn said. “They don’t teach him that rule, and he’s traveling 50 miles per hour. The main reason for that rule is to protect the rest of us.”
Werner also disputed whether the roadway was icy at the time of the accident. But of the 50 witnesses presented during the trial, 14 confirmed that there was ice on the road that day—including a 70-year-old woman who lost control of her vehicle and was also struck by an 18-wheeler, but was not injured, the lawyers said.
“We found another lady that lost control and went across the median. The difference was, the professional driver that hit her was going five or 10 miles per hour,” Steakley said. “The Werner trainee driver was going 50 miles per hour with the instructor asleep behind him. It was a real world example of what happened in this case, and it was very powerful.”
On May 21, a Harris County state court jury found that Werner was negligent for failing to train its driver, and determined that the company was 70 percent responsible for the crash, while Salinas was 16 percent responsible, and Werner’s trainee driver, Shiraz Ali, was 14 percent responsible. The Blake family was awarded $89.6 million in actual damages, $43 million of which was dedicated for the future medical care of Brianna Blake.
Nathan Meisgeier, Werner’s executive vice president and chief legal officer, said the company will appeal the verdict.
“This accident unquestionably had tragic results, and the thoughts and prayers of Werner Enterprises and its associates continue to go out to the Blake family. However, Werner Enterprises maintains that its drivers and the company did nothing wrong,” Meisgeier said. “The undisputed facts are that the plaintiffs were in a pickup that lost control on its side of a divided interstate, came through a grass median, and ran into the Werner truck.”
“The Werner driver was traveling well below the posted speed limit, did not lose control of his tractor-trailer, and even brought the unit to a controlled stop after the impact. As a result, no other motorists were involved in a secondary accident,” Meisgeier said. “If an accident like this is the fault of the driver who was hit by the out-of-control vehicle, think about what that means for every motorist on the roads.”
Penn and Steakley said they are glad the jury listened to their explanation for the accident.
“We’re thankful that the jury gave justice to the Blake family, because they need the help so much,’’ Steakley said.