Gwinnett County Jury Awards $2.5 Million to Passenger Injured in Drag Race
Drag racing is a classic example of unsafe driving which is considered so dangerous that punitive damages are often awarded to innocent victims of such conduct. However, the issues involved in determining liability and awarding damages become more complicated when a party involved in the drag race is the person who suffers injury or wrongful death. A recent case in which a passenger in one of the drag racing vehicles died raises a number of the complex issues involved in this type of accident claim.
A Gwinnett County jury awarded the mother of a teenage passenger in a drag racing vehicle $2.5 million in damages. The passenger Emmanuel Marrero was riding in the back seat of a Civic driven by Jason Polo. The other driver involved in the drag race Joseph Evancho was driving his father’s Mercedes SUV.
According to the Daily Report, both drivers were speeding through the neighborhood. The vehicles estimated speed was 65 miles per hour in a forty mile per hour zone. The plaintiff’s attorney argued that the Mercedes cut in front of the Civic and ran the vehicle off the road before it crashed into a tree. Emmanuel was ejected from the vehicle during the collision. This case raises a number of challenging issues:
Paucity of Evidence
The available evidence to prove that the Civic was cut off by the Mercedes was limited. Polo did not remember what happened because he suffered a concussion when his head smashed into the windshield during the crash. A witness that saw the collision in the mirror of his vehicle testified that he heard Polo ask, “Did you see him cut me off?” Another witness indicated seeing the Mercedes try to run the Civic off the road shortly before the collision.
The only physical evidence to support the plaintiff’s theory was a yaw mark on the road. Unlike a skid mark, a yaw mark indicates sideway wheel movement. An accident reconstruction expert testified that the collision appeared to be the result of steering sharply to avoid hitting another vehicle or object. When there is conflicting testimony about the cause of a crash and limited physical evidence, persuasive advocacy, effective investigation and skillful use of expert testimony is at a premium in a personal injury lawsuit.
Assumption of the Risk/Comparative Fault
A difficult aspect of cases like this one involves minimizing the impact of defenses like assumption of the risk or comparative fault. There was no evidence presented that the passenger was unaware that a drag race was going to take place nor that the plaintiff attempted to intervene or exit the vehicle. In some cases, this could seriously damage a plaintiff’s legal claim. While it is impossible to know whether it impacted the amount of damages awarded in this case, the plaintiff may have benefited from the spontaneous nature of the drag race. According to witness testimony, the drivers did not know each other, so their only interaction was in the moment leading up to the apparent street race. The jury might have placed more blame on the passenger if he had been involved in a pre-planned orchestrated race.
Strategic Decisions Based on Insurance Coverage
The drastic difference in insurance coverage between the drivers forced the attorneys for Emmanuel to take a calculated risk. The insurance coverage available to Evancho, the driver of the Mercedes, was $1.5 million while the coverage available to Polo, the driver of the Civic, was only $100,000. The insurer for Polk offered the policy limit of $100,000 prior to trial. This offer was declined, however, because accepting the settlement would have allowed Evancho’s attorney to more effectively shift blame to Polk at trial. This meant taking a calculate risk of declining the $100,000 policy limit offer to make it more difficult to shift blame from the driver with a $1.5 million limit on coverage.
Dividing Fault between Defendants
The jury determined that Polo was sixty percent at-fault and Evancho was forty percent at-fault. Based on these percentages, Polk’s insurer was responsible for $100,000 (the policy limit) while Evancho’s insurer was required to pay $1,000,000 of the verdict (40% of $2.5 million). Many car accident cases involve multiple negligent parties, so an experienced personal injury attorney must evaluate the available insurance coverage to determine appropriate strategy in litigating the claim.
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