Jury awards ambulance crash victim $117 million

Pregnant woman’s baby was delivered while she was in a coma

By Kimberly Atkins
The Daily Record Newswire
A woman who suffered a severed spinal cord and traumatic brain injury in an ambulance crash that occurred while she was 7 months pregnant has been awarded $117 million by a Louisiana jury.

In December 2010, the ambulance transporting Whitley Lacey rear-ended a sugar cane truck. Lacey’s baby was delivered via emergency cesarean section while her mother was in a coma. The baby girl survived, despite weighing only 3 pounds at birth, but Lacey sustained permanent injuries and will be in a wheelchair for the rest of her life.

The child and Lacey’s older daughter are being cared for by their grandmother.

Plaintiffs’ attorney Kurt Arnold, co-founder of the Houston firm Arnold & Itkin, attributed the size of the verdict to the level of care Lacey will require for the rest of her life.

“My client feels a lot of relief to have [had] the jury system work,” said Arnold, one of several attorneys representing Lacey and her family in the negligence lawsuit against the ambulance company, driver and affiliates. “She’s excited that she can get even better cognitive therapy than she is receiving now. She is certainly facing a brighter future than she was.”

In a statement, Allyson Pharr, vice president of legal and governmental affairs for Acadian Ambulance Service, said that while the company takes “full responsibility to the extent our actions or those of our employees contribute to the damages sustained by persons such as Ms. Lacey,” company attorneys “will be filing an appeal to address the verdict and other issues that arose during the trial.”

Robert E. Kerrigan, Jr. of Deutsch, Kerrigan & Stiles in New Orleans, who represented the defendants at trial, did not return a call seeking comment.

According to the lawsuit, Lacey called an ambulance after experiencing abdominal pain. The complaint alleged that, en route to the hospital, the driver of the ambulance reached speeds of nearly 60 miles per hour on a Louisiana highway, but failed to use the vehicle’s emergency lights.

The plaintiffs allege that the driver, who was required to log his trips via an electronic tracking device, became distracted when he dropped the device on the floor. As he searched for it, he took his eyes off the road and collided with the sugar can truck, the plaintiffs claimed.

Lacey has remained in various hospitals since the day of her accident, which left her without the use of one arm and only limited use of the other. She also suffered brain injuries that will require medical care for the rest of her life.

At trial, the plaintiffs’ attorneys presented evidence showing that, despite Acadian’s internal policies requiring drivers to meet minimum driving standards and mandating retraining for drivers who failed to do so, the driver has a shoddy road record.

“He had 10 prior occasions that he failed to meet the minimum driving scores from the company,” Arnold said.

Despite this, the driver did not participate in the required remedial actions, nor was he fired, Arnold said.

“They overlooked it,” he said.

To counter the defendants’ assertion that the sugar cane truck was to blame for slowing down on the highway, Arnold called an accident reconstruction expert to set the scene with a video illustration. The plaintiffs’ intention was to dispute the defendants’ claims that the driver looked away from the road for a split second at most.

The video showed the relatively large size of the sugar cane truck and how long it would have taken for the vehicles to reach the point of impact.

“We showed that a few times to the jury, and everybody is going, ‘How the heck did he not see it?’” Arnold said. “It was clear that he looked away for more than a split second.”

In presenting evidence of damages, Arnold took a different approach to the traditional day-in-the-life video evidence.

“Usually you have one day in the life video that lasts 30 or 45 minutes,” Arnold said. “What we did was to break it down into four day-in-the-life videos that weren’t as long. That was we could focus on different witnesses: the nurse talking about [Lacey’s] daily routine; [a doctor] talking about the therapy she will need; her family. … That way it’s not too much.”

After an eight-day trial, the jury deliberated for only two hours before awarding a total of $116,939,241 in actual damages.

Pharr, in her statement, called the accident “a horrible tragedy.”

“[O]ur hearts and prayers remain with Ms. Lacey and her family,” Pharr said. “While it is extremely difficult to put a value on a case such as this or ponder the fairness of an award amount, we hope the damage amount ultimately awarded will be used to provide Ms. Lacey with quality care and ensure that her children will not forego any opportunities they may otherwise have had were it not for the injuries their mother sustained in this accident.”