Stephen Cox successfully negotiated a $4.1 Million dollar settlement for two minor boys, aged 10 and 6 for the wrongful death of their father, aged 32, arising from an automobile accident that occurred on August 8, 2014. The boys were in the car with their father and his girlfriend at the time of the accident. Both boys suffered minor personal injuries, but witnessed the death of their father. The settlement included a claim by the girlfriend as well as injury and wrongful death claims of the minor boys.
Plaintiffs Honda vehicle was stopped on Old Lakeville Highway No. 3, where it has a Tintersection with Lakeville Highway in Sonoma County. Plaintiffs were waiting to tum right (north) onto Lakeville Highway, when a special construction (“SPCNS”) trailer designed as a pizza oven, while traveling north, and approaching from the left of the Honda, , broke-away from its tow vehicle. The runaway trailer became an unguided, 4000 lb. missile, veered to the right, and impacted the driver side of the Honda, killing the father, and injuring the girlfriend and the two minor boys. (Photographs of the accident pizza oven trailer is shown as Exhibit 2, and the automobile involved, as Exhibit 3)
The CHP cited the driver of the van pulling the trailer, employed by Doe Pizzeria, for violation of Vehicle Codes 29003(a), and 29004(b). These sections deal with the requirement of having an adequately safe hitch/coupler, hitching the trailer to the towing vehicle, and safety chains with proper retaining clips to keep the trailer attached to the towing vehicle in the event of a failure of the hitch/coupler. The CHP investigation determined the hitch/coupler rated at 3500 lbs was inadequate for the trailer which weighed 4100 lbs. In addition, the CHP determined the safety chain retaining clips had been damaged before the accident in other use, and were inadequate to keep the safety chains connected to the pulling van.
- Defendants and Insurance Limits
The Defendants were in two groups: the Doe Pizzeria group, who used transportable pizza ovens, including the accident pizza oven, to make pizza on site. Insurance coverage for Doe Pizzeria group was $1,000,000 primary, and $1,000,000 excess, through National Surety
Corporation, Chicago, Ill. On April 11, 2016, a separate settlement was reached with the Doe Pizzeria group for their policy limits, of $2,000,000, on condition they stay in the case through trial, in exchange for Plaintiffs’ agreeing to a covenant not execute on any subsequently obtained judgment.
The second group consists of Doe Trailer Company and Doe Welding Company, which entities designed, manufactured, and maintained the accident pizza oven/trailer for Doe Pizzeria. Insurance coverage for manufacturing entities was $1,000,000 primary, $5,000,000 excess through Traveler’s Insurance Co., Hartford, Conn.
- Settlement Negotiations and Mediations
On October 27, 2015, a mediation was attempted among the parties. While Doe Pizzeria/Fireman’s Fund were willing to pay their limits of $2,000,000, on condition of being totally dismissed from the case, Doe Manufacturers/Travelers Ins. were only willing to offer $250,000. The manufacturers blamed the entire accident on the Pizzeria employees, following the lead of the California Highway Patrol conclusions. As a result, the Manufacturing entities felt they had little exposure.
After the first mediation, Plaintiffs counsel employed four different experts in accident reconstruction, mechanical engineering, metallurgy, and visual animation to help develop a case against the manufacturing entities
- Design and Manufacture of the Accident Pizza Oven
Discovery and expert work demonstrated the pizza oven was defectively designed. First, the designer and builder of the accident trailer chose, and installed a hitch coupler for the trailer, which was rated at 3500 lbs. The trailer weighed 3,950 lbs. at the time of the accident, which exceeded the rating of the coupler by 450 lbs.
Second, the trailer was not equipped with required breakaway safety brakes, which would operate to brake the trailer if it became disconnected from the towing vehicle. Such a breakaway
Third, the safety chain retaining devices were inadequate, and should have been replaced with a positive threaded chain loop, and coupling nut, (See Exhibit 4) rather than a sheet metal spring loaded clip (See Exhibit 5).
Defendant Doe Manufacturing Entities claimed the accident was caused by the Pizzeria employees improperly connecting the hitch/coupler of the trailer to the pulling van, and failing to connect the safety chains to the van. Further, whatever liability the manufacturing entities had, their proportionate share of the damages would be less than 10%.
Plaintiffs claimed the inadequate design and manufacture of the pizza oven led to the accident. Had the trailer been properly equipped with a heavier rated hitch coupler, of 7000 lbs., the hitch would not have disengaged in the first place. As it was, the under designed 3500 lbs., hitch coupler did not maintain a coupled position when the trailer hit a bump in the road, immediately before the accident. The hitch/coupler was forceably disengaged from the tow ball, leaving vertical gouges in the tow ball which are revealed by microscopic examination. See Exhibit 4 (photograph of the gouge marks on the tow ball). The torque created by the lurching of the trailer also pulled through the sheet metal, spring loaded retaining clips on the chain hooks, setting the trailer free of the towing van. Better, heavier, threaded chain loop and coupling nut would have retained the chains to the van so the trailer would not have been able to veer off the road into the Honda. Then, due to the lack of safety breakaway brakes, the trailer was allowed to veer off the road to the right and impact the Honda at close to 50 miles per hour. Such brakes would have stopped the trailer, short of a collision.
- Further Negotiations After Discovery and Expert Work
A second mediation was held, commencing on June 8, 2016. By this time Plaintiffs counsel negotiated a settlement with Doe Pizzeria/Fireman’s Fund for their full policy limits, of $2Million, while keeping them in the case through trial by exchanging a covenant not to execute on any judgment against them at trial. This kept them in the case, so the Manufacturing Entities/Travelers couldn’t argue the empty chair defense.
The mediation continued intermittently from June 8 through June 30, 2016. At the conclusion of this second mediation, the Manufacturing Entities/Travelers Ins. increased their offer incrementally until a final settlement was reached. Their contribution increased from the $250,000 they offered in October, 2015 to $2,100,000 which they finally offered in June of 2016. This substantial and significant increase in settlement contribution came about due to significant expert and attorney work and pretrial discovery pursued by counsel. This increase allowed the entire case to settle for $4,100,000.
The settlement amount was apportioned among the Plaintiffs: $1,816,666 for each minor, and $466,668 to the adult girlfriend.