$80 million verdict for cement truck crash death in New Mexico

Cement mixer trucks have unique handling characteristics and are subject to much of the body of motor carrier safety regulations. But many of the cement companies have slack training and safety procedures.

In my Atlanta-based personal injury and wrongful death practice, which includes a large number of accidents involving large trucks, a while back I handled a case in which a cement mixer truck tipped over onto a family vehicle when turning at an intersection. The driver admitted he had never been trained on the special handling characteristics of the mixer truck – which has a high and constantly shifting center of gravity. He had never been exposed to the industry training materials that illustrate how a cement mixer truck will begin to tip in a right angle turn at 12 mph and will roll over in a turn at 16 mph.

The news this week includes a report of a judgment for nearly $80 million for the wrongful death of a New Mexico woman who died in 2002 when a tractor-trailer struck her car and buried it in sand, suffocating her as teachers and students at her child’s school frantically tried to dig her out.

Laura Miera of Albuquerque had just dropped off her 14-year-old daughter at Jimmy Carter Middle School and was waiting at a traffic light when the semitrailer came barreling down the road. The Albuquerque Redi-Mix truck pushed her car to the curb, it rolled, and she was trapped as the semi’s open load of sand poured down on her.

Counselors, teachers and students on their way to the school tried to dig out the 48-year-old woman by hand. One counselor held Miera’s hand as the car filled with sand.

According to the news reports, the truck had an expired registration, three brakes out of adjustment and a driver with two DWI charges before he was hired by Albuquerque Redi- Mix.

The court’s judgment included $60 million in punitive damages and nearly $20 million in compensatory damages. There was no mention of how much of that was covered by liability insurance.

In Georgia, the recovery would be a bit different. Compensatory damages for the full value of the life may be recovered without a cap, so if there were a jury verdict for $20 million for wrongful death here that could be collected up to the amount of available insurance or assets.

Punitive damages in Georgia are allowed where it is proven by clear and convincing evidence that the defendant’s actions showed willful misconduct, malice, fraud, wantonness, oppression, or that entire want of care which would raise the presumption of conscious indifference to consequences. However, the amount of punitive damages in Georgia is limited to $250,000 in cases not involving the first verdict against a defective product, unless it involves a specific intent to harm, alcohol or drugs.

Ken Shigley is past president of the State Bar of Georgia (2011-12), double board certified in Civil Trial Advocacy and Civil Pretrial Advocacy by the National Board of Legal Specialty Certification, and lead author of Georgia Law of Torts: Trial Preparation and Practice.  His Atlanta-based civil trial practice is focused on representation of plaintiffs in cases of castastrophic personal injury and wrongful death.