Texas Injury caused by cell phone use yields $22M verdict Case highlights risks associated with distracted driving

By Ruth Sheehan

The Daily Record Newswire

BOSTON -- A Texas jury has awarded more than $22 million to a woman injured when her car was broadsided by a station wagon driven by a Coca-Cola marketing employee talking on her cell phone.

The Nueces County jury awarded 37-year-old Vanice Chatman-Wilson more than $11.5 million for lost wages, medical expenses and pain and suffering. Jurors also awarded $10 million in punitive damages against Coca-Cola.

Thomas J. Henry, one of the plaintiff's attorneys, attributed the jury's verdict to the broader public safety issue.

"Corporations big and small are getting a wake-up call that allowing your employees to use cell phones while driving is a big risk," said Henry, whose firm Thomas J. Henry Injury Attorneys has offices in Houston and Corpus Christi, Texas. "Basically, distracted driving is as dangerous as drunk driving."

The verdict was agreed to and signed by five of six jurors.

Defense lawyer Darrell L. Barger of Hartline Dacus Barger Dreyer LLP in Corpus Christi, Texas, could not be reached for comment. In a statement released following the trial, Coca-Cola stated that the case "was tried because the parties could not come to an agreement on damages. ... Coca-Cola Refreshments' cell phone policy, which requires the use of a hands-free device when operating a motor vehicle, is completely consistent with, and in fact, exceeds the requirements of Texas law. ... There is no discernible connection between the damages awarded in this case and the injuries sustained by the plaintiff. Although we respect the verdict of the jury, we plan to appeal."

Downtown intersection

The accident occurred in August of 2010 at an intersection in downtown Corpus Christi, Texas. Chatman-Wilson was on the way to her job at a payday lending shop. The Coca-Cola employee, Araceli Venessa Cabral, was on a business call on her hands-free cell phone, per company policy.

She thought she had a green turn arrow and turned left into oncoming traffic, crushing Chatman-Wilson's car on the driver's side.

Robert Hilliard, of Hilliard Munoz Gonzalez LLP in Corpus Christi, the other lead attorney for the plaintiff, said the driver was as stunned as his client by the crash. She had no idea she had done anything wrong.

"She was so involved in that conversation, she had no clue she was turning against the light," he said. "The sad thing is that Coca-Cola driver will go to her grave thinking that she had that green turn arrow, even when her own lawyers admit she didn't."

At trial, Henry and Hilliard hammered home the point that just because a driver isn't physically holding a phone doesn't mean he or she isn't distracted by the conversation.

Hilliard said the plaintiff's biggest hurdle was challenging jurors' views of appropriate safeguards in cell phone use.

"This was not a group of people who fully appreciated the diverse risks of distracted driving," he said. "They told us afterward they were surprised to learn that there is just as much cognitive distraction with a hands-free set as with a hand-held cell phone. They knew it was bad to dial, or to text. You don't always appreciate the danger when you're not looking down, but you can be looking straight ahead but completely distracted by the conversation you're having."

To bolster their case, Henry and Hilliard cited study after study showing the toll of distracted driving due to cell phone use. For example, according to a 2010 National Highway Traffic Safety Administration study, 5,474 people were killed on U.S. roadways and an estimated 448,000 more were injured in motor vehicle crashes attributed to distracted driving in 2009. Approximately 1 in 5 of the deaths was linked directly to cell phone use.

The attorneys also pointed to studies that show the dangers of cell phone use are not limited to the manipulation of a handheld device. One of the seminal studies cited at trial indicated that cell phone use of any sort -- hand-held or hands-free -- creates a 37 percent cognitive distraction, stealing more than a third of the driver's attention.

Henry said a 2006 study out of the University of Utah showed that cell phone use, statistically, is as dangerous as driving while intoxicated.

"It's like driving at .08," he said.

During discovery, Henry said, the plaintiffs' team learned that Coca-Cola knew about such studies but continued to endorse the hands-free cell-phone policy as sufficient to protect its employees and the driving public.

"This is info Coca-Cola had and did not share with their employees," Henry said.

On the stand, Hilliard asked Cabral whether she would have used a phone so often in her daily routine as a marketing employee, if she had known hands-free cell phone conversations had been found to be as distracting as conversations on handheld phones.

She said no.

About six months before the crash, corporate headquarters sent a notice to regional offices reminding them to alert employees to the dangers of using cell phones and driving. But neither Cabral nor her supervisor testified that they had received that message.

And officially, Henry said, Coca-Cola held to its policy that an employee could use a cell phone "when necessary."

What amounted to "when necessary" was left to each employee's discretion, he said.

Cabral, the driver in this case, traveled in her company vehicle two or three hours a day between the five or six major retail operations she provided marketing assistance to. Her cell phone records indicated she spent a good portion of her time on the road on the phone.

"She testified that she thought the hands-free telephone made it safe," Henry said.

Chatman-Wilson, who was not available for comment, suffered a spinal injury that required back surgery. She continues to have a 25 percent disability.

Henry said Coca-Cola now has an opportunity not to blindly defend its current policy but to become one of the leaders on the distracted driving issue.

"There are some big mega corporations that have taken the lead," he said. "Those companies are going to keep their employees -- and the rest of us -- safe. It's a question of whether Coca-Cola is willing to be one of them."

Published: Tue, May 29, 2012

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