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The Kansas City Star - September 30, 2004

$3 million verdict: trucking company found liable in death

By Joe Lambe
The Kansas City Star
September 30, 2004

Patricia Walker of Odessa died at age 25 when a vehicle on Interstate 70 flipped a heavy piece of fallen steel through her windshield into her head.

That day three years ago, other drivers stopped her runaway car and attempted to help Walker, but they couldn’t save her. On Wednesday, in an unusual case, a Jackson County jury did what it could for Walker.

Jurors found that a Kansas City scrap-metal company should pay $2 million to her adopted 9-year-old son. It also found the company should pay an additional $1 million in punitive damages split between the boy and the state. By law, the state gets half of punitive damages, which are intended to punish and deter wrong behavior.

The verdict will help protect the public, an attorney for the boy said.

“Somebody is going to live because of what happened today, and they won’t even know it,” said the attorney, Gary C. Robb.

Jurors found that American Compressed Steel Inc. endangered Walker and the public by not securing loads despite as many as 50 prior incidents where debris spilled from company trucks and damaged cars.

Jurors also said that company driver William Copeland shared liability for the actual damages. He was hauling a load of scrap metal when the 37-pound metal plate fell from his uncovered container truck. The plate lay on the highway for hours before another vehicle flipped it into Walker’s car.

The plaintiff in the case, Deric Lee Coon, was 6 years old on Aug. 20, 2001, when Walker, the woman who had acted as his mother for years, died in the accident on Interstate 70 between Missouri 291 and Lee’s Summit Road.

Driving west toward Noland Road, Walker was minutes away from picking up her fiancé, Christopher Coon, who is Deric’s father.

Walker planned to marry Coon and adopt Deric. Courts gave Deric permission to sue as her son. Courts also ruled that Walker could adopt Deric after Walker’s death – – a rare process called equitable adoption that is intended for such cases.

Jury foreman Sean Wilson of Lee’s Summit said evidence against the company was overwhelming, and jurors wanted to send a message.

“We hope this makes a statement to those companies with trucks…that aren’t taking safety precautions,” he said, adding that the company showed no remorse and kept shipping unsafe loads after Walker’s death.

Paul Hasty, a lawyer for the company, denied at trial that the company did anything wrong. He declined comment after the verdicts.

Shirley Coon of Lafayette County, Deric’s grandmother and caretaker, hugged her lawyers and thanked jurors on behalf of Deric, who was in school Wednesday. Tear streamed down the face of Carleton Coon, Deric’s grandfather.

Deric is doing well but still misses his mother and suffers from her loss, his grandmother said. “He worries when one of us drives off because she did and didn’t return.”

The verdicts ended a weeklong trial that featured the heavy 16-by-14-inch railroad crossing arm counterweight, a private investigator, trucking standards and the practices of American Compressed Steel, a private recycling company for more than 30 years at 1420 Woodswether Road.

Jeff Ross, president and part owner of the company, testified that the company had issued an edict after the death that tarps cover all highway loads. It does not make sense to cover every load on every street, which would slow business, he said.

But a private investigator for Robb testified that during a 10-day stakeout at the company last month, the loads on 63 percent of 40 trucks arriving at the company were not covered or secured in any way.

Robb argued that all the container trucks should be covered under city law and for public safety.

He asked Ross, “Today this policy… (to) secure only on highways, this edict…is still in effect?”

Ross answered, “Rapidly changing, but, yes, still in effect.”

In closing arguments Tuesday, Robb told jurors the case was every driver’s worst nightmare and it happened “because a company made a conscious business decision not to follow the law.”

Copeland, who pleaded guilty previously to the misdemeanor of failure to sufficiently secure a vehicle load, didn’t put a tarp over the load because it was not company policy, Robb said.

He also cited testimony of an expert who said such loads should be covered. He noted that Kansas City codes require them to be covered and state and federal laws say loads must be secure.

“They’re still not covering the loads,” Robb said. “What is it going to take? One more death? Two more?”

Hasty countered that not all loads need covers, that Copeland checked his load of heavy steel and that he could not have anticipated the big chunk of steel would bounce out of the container.

Until this case, he said, the company had no reason to believe that something like that could come out the top of the truck. A company official testified that they had from 10 to 50 reports of previous car damage from truck debris, but those could have been pebbles and dust tossed by tires, Hasty said.

Anita Porte Robb, also an attorney for Deric, countered that the company official had admitted that some of the previous car damage was severe and in more than one place on vehicles. “That’s not rocks,” she said, and is more consistent with pieces of steel.

After the verdicts, juror Kevin Kraft of Kansas City said jurors didn’t think the company did much to make loads safer despite obvious danger and Walker’s death.

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