Date of Verdict:
Court and Case No.:
M.D. of Pennsylvania No. 1:14-cv-00917-SHR.
Sylvia H. Rambo.
Type of Action:
Robert N. Hunn, Kolsby Gordon Robin Shore & Bezar, Philadelphia.
Gary N. Stewart, Rawle & Henderson, Harrisburg; George T. McCool Jr., Wright & O’Donnell, Conshohocken.
Plaintiffs Experts: Royal Bunin, economics, Wynnewood; Brooks Rugemer, trucking industry, Lancaster; Sabeen Faris, psychiatry, Chambersburg; Steven Triantafyllou, orthopedic surgery, York; Jeffrey Sarsfield, physical medicine, Chambersburg.
Chad Staller, economics, Philadelphia; Michael Napier, trucking industry, Macon, Georgia; Richard Boal, orthopedic surgery, Camp Hill.
On Nov. 19, 2013, at about 5 p.m., plaintiff Francisco Ramos-Becerra, 44, a landscaper, was in the bed of his Ford pickup truck on the shoulder of Interstate 81, in Guildford Township. He was refilling his pickup with fuel. While he was doing so, he was rear-ended by the cab of a truck, which was being driven without its trailer. The cab had veered off the road and struck Ramos-Becerra’s pickup at about 50 miles per hour.
The driver, Ricky Hatfield, was arrested for driving under the influence, and later sentenced to prison.
Hatfield was an independent contractor under contract with JB Hunt Transport Inc. He was in between hauling trailers from Fredericksburg, Virginia, to Pennsylvania, at the time of the accident.
Ramos-Becerra suffered multiple fractures and injuries, including mental trauma, and ultimately claimed he was permanently disabled and requires a cane to walk.
Ramos-Becerra sued Hatfield (who was imprisoned and did not attend trial), his trucking company (Hatfield Trucking), and JB Hunt. He alleged that JB Hunt was negligent in contracting with Hatfield, who had a compromised driving history.
Ramos-Becerra’s expert in trucking faulted JB Hunt for not performing a sufficient background check on Hatfield before it hired him, and if it had, it would have discovered that he had a prior DUI while driving a tractor-trailer, in 2009.
JB Hunt’s expert in trucking maintained that Hatfield was not working at the time of the accident, since he was in between hauls, and it was in between hauls that Hatfield got inebriated. According to the expert, the company performed an adequate background check, on a government-run website that rated motor carriers. Since Hatfield had just become a motor carrier when JB Hunt was investigating him, he had no rating, which, according to JB Hunt, was satisfactory, and the company proceeded to contract with him.
Ramos-Becerra’s counsel asserted that, given that Hatfield had no rating for operating a commercial vehicle, it was unacceptable for JB Hunt to have hired him.
Ramos-Becerra was taken by ambulance to a hospital, where he was diagnosed with fractures to his nasal bone, skull, right tibia, 12 rib fractures (seven on one side, three on the other), and a left anterior cruciate ligament tear. He underwent open reduction and internal fixation surgery on both the tibia fracture (in which a plate and screws were implanted) and his rib fractures.
About three weeks later, Ramos-Becerra was transferred to an inpatient-rehabilitation facility, where he treated for two to three weeks. Upon discharge, he underwent home physical therapy, and later outpatient physical therapy, which he treated regularly in the ensuing years.
Ramos-Becerra treated with an otolaryngologist, and in April 2014, he underwent surgical repair of his nasal fracture. He later developed extreme pain in his legs and was diagnosed with chronic pain syndrome. He began treating with a pain-management specialist, who prescribed pain medication and administered an epidural injection of a steroid-based painkiller to his low back.
In addition to his physical injuries, Ramos-Becerra suffered from mental trauma, and treated with a psychiatrist. He was diagnosed with depression and post-traumatic disorder. He sought to recover $282,000 in medical costs and $115,500 in past wages (he had not returned to work).
Ramos-Becerra’s orthopedic surgeon discussed his injuries and treatment, and opined that his gait had been impaired due to his injuries. Ramos-Becerra, who uses a cane, will have permanent impairment in his legs, the physician concluded. The physician deemed Ramos-Becerra permanently disabled. He sought to recover $918,000 in future lost earnings.
Ramos-Becerra’s psychiatrist attributed his mental trauma to his injuries, and opined that he will require indefinite psychiatric treatment.
Ramos-Becerra, who continues to take pain medication, testified that the most difficult part was how his injuries affect his ability to be a father for his four young children. He discussed how he is no longer able to play soccer with them, and it is difficult for his children to see him in pain. He said that he is not able to provide for his family. He sought damages for past and future pain and suffering.
Ramos-Becerra’s wife talked about his condition and how he is a different person. He had been a happy, friendly person; now he is isolated and very guarded. She sought damages for her claim for loss of consortium.
JB Hunt’s expert in orthopedic surgery, who examined Ramos-Becerra, testified that he was not as functionally impaired as he alleged, and some of his pain was subjective.
The company’s expert in economics disputed Ramos-Becerra’s economist’s calculations, and opined that his future lost earnings were not as high as he alleged.
Hatfield’s counsel urged the jury to be reasonable in their damages award, as their job was not to punish Hatfield, since the state punished him by putting him in prison.
The jury found that Hatfield and his company were 100 percent liable. No liability was found against JB Hunt. Ramos-Becerra and his wife were determined to receive $2 million.
This report is based on information that was provided by counsel for plaintiffs. Ricky L. Hatfield, and Hatfield Trucking. Counsel for JB Hunt Transport Inc. declined to comment.