$2.3 Million Landslide Claim - Largest Wrongful Death Jury Verdict in Skagit County History at the Time
Jan 01, 1988
$2.3 million verdict
A jury awarded $2.3 million to the families of four victims killed when a landslide caused by shoddy logging practices roared down a hillside.
Holz v. Burlington Northern and Whatcom County
$752,000 awarded from deadly collision with train
16-year-old Jody Holz was riding his motorcycle on a little-traveled road in Whatcom County. Burlington Northern had parked a freight train with a black tank car spanning the county road. Jody Holz collided with the tank car and died. The critical issue was whether the train was "plainly visible" to the motorcyclist who faced the standard defense instruction that a person has a duty to see that which would be seen by a person exercising ordinary care. By court order, Burlington Northern was forced to provide a tank car for accident reconstruction. An identical motorcycle was brought to the scene, and a professional photographer took photographs of the tank car illuminated only by the motorcycle's headlight. A videotape was then produced showing each black and white photograph for a computer measured exact one second interval. When played back, the videotape thus created "the last nine seconds of Jody Holz's life." The train became visible only for the last two seconds or 100 feet, far too late to avoid the collision.
Burlington Northern's liability was established through the testimony of a railroad safety consultant who testified that the railroad failed to exercise reasonable care. All four crewmen admitted the train blocked the road for 10 to 15 minutes. The engineer testified that on this and many other occasions an alternative method for switching maneuvers was used which did block the county road.
Throughout the trial, Burlington Northern denied negligence, denied that Rule 103(f) was applicable and claimed it was merely a rule to ensure that emergency vehicles are not impeded. The jury found Burlington Northern 95 percent responsible for the collision.
Whatcom County was also brought into the suit on two theories: that the county failed to place railroad pavement markings, and the county failed to illuminate the railroad crossing. The jury assessed two-and-a-half percent of the responsibility for the collision against Whatcom County.
Defendants Burlington Northern and Whatcom County tried to establish contributory negligence by claiming that Plaintiff was riding without a helmet, with defective brakes, with headlights inappropriately placed in the dim position, and at an excessive rate of speed. The jury found Jody Holz two-and-a-half percent contributorily negligent.
Economic loss was calculated at $225,000. The jury added $500,000 for loss of love and companionship. The total verdict was $752,600 gross; $733,785 net, compared to (the then applicable) Tort Reform Act limit of $730,058.
The case is Holz v. Burlington Northern and Whatcom County, Whatcom County Cause No. 88-2-00603-9.
French v. Parker et. al.
Jury awards $5 million to victim of drunk driver
Hailey French was severely injured in a head-on collision with a drunk driver who had been released from a prior drunk driving arrest by a state trooper one hour and 39 minutes previously. Instead of booking the drunk driver into jail or impounding her car, the trooper drove her home, gave her back her keys, and told her not to drive again "until she sobered up." Instead the drunk driver called a taxi, returned to her car, got back on the road, and crossed the center line, hitting Hailey French head-on. Since the drunk driver herself had only $25,000 in policy limits, Plaintiff's counsel, Dean Brett of Brett and Coats, was forced to find other sources of liability coverage through the State Patrol and the Whatcom County District Court Probation Department. State Patrol's Duty: Through a series of Motions for Summary Judgment, Plaintiff established an exception to the Public Duty Doctrine as it applied to the Washington State Patrol. Under the "special relationship" or "take charge" exception to the Public Duty Doctrine under Restatement (2nd) of Torts §315 and 319, the Court held that after taking the drunk driver into custody for being in physical control of a vehicle while intoxicated, the State Patrol trooper had a duty to exercise reasonable care to control the drunk driver to prevent reasonably foreseeable harm to others from her dangerous propensities. The standard of care for the state trooper was then established through the testimony of D.P. Van Blaricom, the retired Bellevue Chief of Police, who testified that the trooper unreasonably failed to prevent the drunk driver from having access to her vehicle. While law enforcement officers have wide discretion, in this situation they must separate the driver from the car in one of four ways: by impounding the car, by turning the car over to a sober, responsible adult, by turning the driver over to a sober, responsible adult, or by holding the driver in jail until she is sober. The standard of care was also supported by the testimony of Whatcom County Sheriff Bill Elfo and the two other officers who participated in the initial stop, one from the Whatcom County Sheriff's Office and one from the Bellingham Police Department. The forseeability of the drunk driver's actions after having her keys returned to her while still in an intoxicated state was illuminated by the testimony of Dr. Dary Fiorentino, a nationally renowned expert on alcohol and its affect on driving. The claim against the Whatcom County District Court Probation Department arose from the fact that the drunk driver had been under a court order to drive only a car equipped with an alcohol interlock device, but the probation department had failed to follow-up on the judge's court-ordered requirement. Probation Department's Duty: The drunk driver had been placed on deferred prosecution eight months before the crash, with a court order providing that she could only drive a vehicle with an alcohol interlock device. The court had required the Whatcom County District Court Probation Department to monitor the interlock condition. Unfortunately, the Probation Department failed to do so, claiming that they only monitored the interlock requirement when a judge specifically wrote "verify interlock" on the bottom of a Judgment and Sentence. Extensive discovery determined that in over 2000 Judgment and Sentence forms received by the Probation Department between 2002 and 2007, only one judge had ever written "verify install" on the bottom of a Judgment and Sentence. The 5.5 million dollar verdict is the largest jury verdict ever recovered in Skagit County. The second largest jury verdict of 2.4 million dollars was also recovered by Dean Brett.