Record Verdict Rented Car With Nine Occupants Collides With Disabled Tractor-Trailer On Approach To George Washington Bridge Truck Driver And Company Liable For Negligent Safety Procedures Rental Car Company Partially Liable For Inadequate Seat Belts Massive Injuries To Occupants
VERDICT: $197,570,786 total verdict.
Breakdown: Cataldo: $5,993,000. Breakdown: $10,000 for lost earnings; $2,000, 000 for past pain and suffering; $3,983,000 for future pain and suffering ( 56.9 years).
Baptista: $3,501,100. Breakdown: $1,100 for lost earnings; $1,000, 000 for past pain and suffering; $2,500,000 for future pain and suffering ( 50 years).
Shiyamala Thirunayagam: $163,882,660. Breakdown: $221,000 for past hospital expenses; $78,000 for lost earnings; $12,000,000 for past pain and suffering; $1,258,131 for future housing and housing modification expenses (46 years); $6,250 for work rehabilitation (46 years); $14,725, 800 for future home care (46 years); $29,553,612 for future nursing (46 years); $2,931,678 for future doctors’ bills, medical services, and therapy (46 years); $1,367,698 for future medical supplies (46 years); $ 760,147 for loss of future earning capacity (46 years); $1,404,802 for future equipment expenses (46 years); $242,210 for future van expenses (46 years); $3,000,000 for future hospital expenses (46 years); $92,000,000 for future pain and suffering (46 years); $500,000 for past loss of services of husband; $3,833,333 for future loss of services of husband (46 years).
Perinparagam Thirunayagam: $16,842,026. Breakdown: $174,670 for lost earnings; $1,500,000 for past pain and suffering; $35,200 for future psychiatric care (1 year) $0 for future medical expenses; $.1,632,157 for future lost earnings (30 years); $9,750,000 for future pain and suffering ( 39 years); $500,000 for past loss of services of wife; $3,249,999 for future loss of services of wife (39 years).
Indran Thiagarasa: $7,352,000. Breakdown: $60,000 for past loss of financial support; $130,000 for past loss of services; $6,000,000 for pain and suffering including fear of impending death; $330,000 for future loss of financial support (33 years); $832,000 for future loss of services (32 years).
Liability: Tharamakulasigam Kanagaratnam 10%; TNT Pilot, Inc. 45%; Thompson 45% negligent. Budget Rent-A-Car of Delaware, Inc. was held liable. There was no liability against Budget Corp.
All parties settled while post-trial motions were pending: Thirunayagam settled for $9,750,000 plus a continuation of future medical expenses under New Jersey No-Fault Law; Thiagarasa settled for $2,225,000; Baptista settled for $250,000; and Cataldo settled for $875,000.
XI/7-1 Record Verdict Rented Car With Nine Occupants Collides With Disabled Tractor-Trailer On Approach To George Washington Bridge Truck Driver And Company Liable For Negligent Safety Procedures Rental Car Company Partially Liable For Inadequate Seat Belts Massive Injuries To Occupants
Christina Cataldo and Marcia Baptista v. Budget Rent-A-Car Corp.; Budget Rent-A-Car of Delaware, Inc.; T.N.T. Pilot, Inc.; Pilot Carriers, Inc.; Floyd Thompson; and Tharamakulasigam Kanagaratnam 1210/88/Shiyamala and Perinparagam Thirunayagam v. Winner Ford of Newark, Inc. d/b/a Budget Rent- A-Car Corp. and Tharamakulasigam Kanagaratnam 6945/90/Robert Black, Public. Adm. of Bronx County and as Adm. of the Est. of Indran Thiagarasa v. Winner Ford; Winner Ford of Newark, Inc. d/b/a Budget Rent-A-Car Corp. 12001/88 6-week trial Verdict 7/20/93 Judge Orin R. Kitzes, Queens Supreme
Pltf. Atty: Harvey Weitz of Schneider, Kleinick & Weitz, Manhattan, for Thirunayagam; James B. Lebow of Kelner & Kelner, Mineola, for Est. of Indran Thiagarasa; Eleni Coffinas of Sullivan & Liapakis, Manhattan, for Cataldo; Harry First of First & First, Manhattan, for Baptista
Deft. Atty: Jesse J. Graham II of Bower & Gardner, Manhattan, for TNT and Thompson; Michael A. Baranowicz of Montfort, Healy, McGuire & Salley, Garden City, for Budget Rent-A-Car of Delaware; Brian R. Davey of Mulholland, Minion & Roe, Williston Park, for Kanagaratnam; Lawrence H. Reid of Congdon, Flaherty, O’Callaghan, Reid, Donlon & Travis, Garden City, for Budget Rent-A-Car
Note: This is the largest personal injury verdict of any kind in New York State history.
The accident occurred in New Jersey on Rte. 95 approximately 3/4 of a mile before the George Washington Bridge on 10/4/87 at 12:15 AM. It was raining heavily at the time. Pltfs. were passengers in a Ford station wagon driven by Tharamakulasigam Kanagaratnam (10% liable). There were a total of nine occupants in the vehicle which was rented from Budget Rent-A- Car (45% liable). The station wagon collided with the rear of a tractor- trailer owned by TNT Pilot, Inc. and driven by Floyd Thompson (45% liable). The occupants of the Ford consisted of friends and relatives, most of whom were immigrants from Sri Lanka. The impact resulted in death to one of the occupants and massive injuries to four of them, the details of which are discussed below.
The case against Budget was based on its agent’s negligence in renting a six-passenger station wagon (equipped with six seat belts) to a group of nine people, requiring three of them to sit in the cargo area. Budget’s regulations, which were in evidence, specifically forbid renting a car to a group that exceeds the number of seat belts available. Pltfs. Christina Cataldo, Marcia Baptista, and decedent Indran Thiagarasa were riding in the rear cargo area of the station wagon. Besides the injuries to themselves, their hurling bodies also caused injuries to other occupants. Deft. Budget argued that the “cargo area” passengers were contributorily negligent, although the jury found no negligence against them. Budget also argued, through an expert witness, that the injuries to Mrs. Thirunayagam (who suffered total quadriplegia) was not caused by a hurling body, but was caused by her forward movement after impact. Thus, argued Budget, the lack of seat belts was not a proximate cause of Mrs. Thirunayagam’s injury.
The case against TNT and the driver, Thompson, was based on negligent ” breakdown procedures.” Evidence indicated that the truck had been disabled in the traffic lane for 21/2 to 3 hours prior to the impact. For the first hour or so after the truck broke down, there was heavy traffic, during Which time Thompson waved motorists away. TNT rules require its drivers, in the event of a breakdown, to radio the company’s central office in North Carolina. The truck was only equipped with a CB, incapable of such a long-distance communication. Company rules also prohibited a driver from contacting local authorities to make his own arrangements in the event of a breakdown. Testimony indicated that Thompson radioed to another trucker who in turn eventually notified North Carolina. The normal procedure was that the office in North Carolina would then contact one of its local contract towing agencies. Pltfs. argued that this procedure was inherently dangerous, by removing from a driver the ability to handle an on-scene emergency as expeditiously as possible. Pltf. also argued that the driver, when he first realized that he was having mechanical problems, missed an opportunity to pull onto the road shoulder. The case against TNT was also based on its negligent training, and Thompson’s negligent execution of on-site accident procedures. The problem here was that, after traffic volume lightened up and the speed of the cars increased, Thompson began placing emergency reflector triangles behind the trailer. Correct procedure required, as indicated right on the box containing the triangles, that the most distant triangle be placed at least 200 feet from the disabled vehicle. Responding police testimony indicated that the most distant reflector was only about 75 feet behind the trailer, some 125 feet from where it should have been. Although procedures required, and the instructions on the box so indicated, that the driver “walk off’ the distance in placing the triangles, Thompson testified that he placed the triangles where he simply thought it most appropriate. Defts. TNT and Thompson argued that the communication procedures were customary in the trade, and called a trucking expert who so testified. He also testified that the driver acted reasonably under the circumstances.
The case against Kanagaratnam, the driver of the station wagon, was based on failure to keep a proper lookout under the rainy conditions at the time. Mr. Kanagaratnam did not testify at trial.
The injuries to the occupants were the result of direct impact, or the result of impact with other occupants who were hurled about the vehicle.
Shiyamala Thirunayagam: ($163,882,660 verdict 23-year-old cashier at the time of the accident) total quadriplegia. Mrs. Thirunayagam requires round-the-clock home health aid. The evidence introduced was for the cost of an LPN, not an RN. Total medical costs, in today’s dollars, is approximately $220,000 per year, projected over a 46- year life expectancy. A home health care aide testified to her observations of Mrs. Thirunayagam’s constant pain. Pltf. also suffers from severe psychological problems, and is seen by a psychotherapist once a week. There was testimony that during her hospitalization she requested that doctors assist her to commit suicide. There was also evidence to the severe marital strain as a result of the injuries to Mrs. as well as to Mr. Thirunayagam. Evidence was introduced that the customs and mores of Sri Lanka forbid divorce. The couple have no children. A 10-minute “Day in the Life” video was witnessed by the jury.
Perinparagam Thirunayagam: ($16,842,026 verdict 29-year-old cab driver at the time of the accident) brain damage resulting from multiple brain hemorrhages as evidenced by CAT scans as well as atrophy to parts of the brain established by MRIs. Mr. Thirunayagam’s major problem is a severe cognitive disorder and drastic behavioral problems including violent temper episodes. He returned to work for a period of time as a cab driver, but was forced to abandon the job because of anxiety. He has been unable to hold even the most menial job. He also suffers from fine motor coordination problems.
Indran Thiagarasa: ($7,352,000 verdict single male, age 24 at the time of the accident) Mr. Thiagarasa died 3 years after the accident. During that time he was confined to the Greenery, a head trauma center in Boston. There was extensive evidence to the pain and suffering that he underwent during that 3-year period of time. Pltf.’s expert neurologist testified that, although in an apparently comatose state, he did suffer severely. There was evidence that decedent would grimace in pain from time to time, and that he would cry after his family left the room. There were over 200 hospital entries indicating pain, including notations about the administering of painkillers. Pltf. also contended that during this time, decedent suffered a constant fear of impending death. Defense experts contended that he was in a persistent vegetative state and suffered no pain. The jury awarded $6,000,000 for decedent’s conscious pain and suffering.
Christina Cataldo: ($5,993,000 verdict a 17-year-old waitress) cervical fracture at C-6 with subluxation; radiculopathy, especially weakness and numbness in the left (nondominant) hand. Pltf. Cataldo was in Gardiner-Wells tongs for 1 month, and a halo brace for 21/2 months. Her treating physician testified that by the time of trial she had already begun to develop traumatic arthritis. Pltf. also suffers from psychological problems, diagnosed as post-traumatic depression or reactive depression.. Ms. Cataldo was one of the three passengers in the cargo area of the station wagon.
Marcia Baptista: ($3,501,100 verdict 24-year-old cashier at the time of the accident) extremely complex through-and-through laceration and avulsion of the lower portion of the right ear requiring emergency reconstructive plastic surgery. The ear, which was almost torn off in the accident, is still partially deformed. She also sustained a displaced lumbar fracture at T-9 requiring a body cast for approximately 4 weeks and she suffered dental injuries consisting primarily of fractures to the teeth.
Pltf. Experts: Liability: David Stopper, truck accident reconstruction expert, Broad Run, Virginia (concerning placement of the reflective triangles); Nicholas Bellizzi, transportation and traffic engineer, Holmdel, New Jersey (on reaction time, speed, warnings, etc.).
Deft. Experts: Liability: Paul Olson, human factors engineer, Ann Arbor, Michigan; Ronald Thomasetti, trucking expert, Elizabethtown, Pennsylvania (testified that the procedures were customary and that the truck driver’s actions were reasonable); Dr. John States, orth. surg. and seat belt expert, Rochester (testified for Budget on the Shiyamala Thirunayagam case, contending that her injuries were caused by a forward motion, not by being struck from behind, and that lack of seat belts, therefore, was not a proximate cause of her injuries); Al Cipriani, engineer, Annapolis, Maryland (testified that the car’s driver should have seen the truck).
Pltf. Experts: Damages: For Thirunayagam: Dr. Kristjan Ragnarsson, rehabilitative medicine, Manhattan, for Shiyamala; Dr. Todd Feinberg, neurobehaviorist, Beth Israel Hospital, for Perinparagam; Dr. Anna Dutka, economist, Manhattan. For Thiagarasa: Dr. Conrad Berenson, Ph.D., economist, Woodbury; Dr. Lawrence Shields, orth. surg., Brooklyn (testified to Mr. Thiagarasa’s pain and suffering for over 21/2 years). For Cataldo: Dr. Irving Liebman, orth. surg., Manhattan. For Baptista: Dr. Joel Wisotski, treating dentist, Kew Gardens; Dr. Leo Batash, rehabilitation expert.
Deft. Experts: Damages: Dr. Michael Weintraub, neurologist, Briarcliff Manor (denied that decedent Thiagarasa had pain and suffering prior to death); Dr. Bruce Meinhard, orth. surg., East Meadow (testified that Pltf. Cataldo’s cervical fracture did not result in a loss of a full range of motion).