Over $975 Million in Verdicts and Recoveries Over $975 Million in Verdicts and Recoveries
$23 Million Verdict Sends Message To Drunk Drivers
Chris Brown and Kenneth C. Jones
Missouri Lawyers Weekly
1/03/2000

Public outrage over a lack of progress on pressing social problems can sometimes manifest itself in big verdicts, experienced practitioners know.

Jurors want to send a message to policymakers who seem to be dragging their feet on important issues.

Gary C. Robb addressed this kind of sentiment in winning a $23.4 million verdict - the third highest of 1999 - in a wrongful death suit that arose when a drunk driver killed a young couple and their 4-month old daughter.

Robb represented relatives of the Stowers family in the case against the driver. "I argued that the jury should send the 'Stowers' message: If you drink and drive, and kill, you'll pay for the rest of your life," Robb said. 

 And in building his theme about the societal cost of drunk driving, he relied on information he had elicited from his expert on blood alcohol analysis.

"The expert said that one-half of all traffic fatalities are alcohol-related," said Robb. "That's 20,000 deaths out of 40,000 auto deaths each year."

Robb drove home the significance of this figure with a dramatic analogy "To help the jury grasp what this means, I pointed out that this was the equivalent of two jumbo jet crashes weekly."

"Now if we had two jet crashes a week, it would be a national crisis - we just wouldn't tolerate it, we'd demand that something be done."

"But with drunk driving deaths, because they happen one or two at a time, we don't see it as a crisis. So I asked the jury to send a statement about how bad this really is, and how seriously we take it."

"Nothing else we have tried seems to have worked," said Robb. "But the message of this verdict is, even if you get off with a suspended sentence, you will be ruined financially."

"This could be an important wake-up call."

Accident
On Dec. 25, 1998, Cecil and Tracy Stowers and their 4-month-old daughter Sydney were traveling home from a family Christmas celebration. They were southbound on Interstate 435 in Kansas City at about 10:00 p.m..

At the same time, Anthony Fields was northbound on I-435. Near the exit at 83rd St., Fields crossed the grassy median strip, went airborne and struck the Stower's car, killing all three occupants. Another car was also involved in the accident, and two of it's occupants received minor injuries.

Fields was also slightly injured in the crash. He attempted to flee the scene but was apprehended by a Jackson County detention officer. Field's BAC was later measured at .16, .06 over the legal limit.

He was charged and later convicted of involuntary manslaughter and assault in the accident.

Vernon and Laverne Robinson, the parents of Tracy Stowers, and Idora Henderson, the mother of Cecil Stowers, filed a wrongful death suit against Fields.

Although the defendant declined to put on evidence, Robb noted that the liability issues in the case were contested both in the defendant's deposition and on cross examination.

"The defendant testified in deposition that he was not speeding that he was going between 70 mph and 72 mph," said Robb. "And through his lawyers, he criticized the method used by the police department investigator to determine his speed."

Robb answered this challenge with testimony from an accident expert who used skid marks to estimate Fields' speed at a minimum of 85 just before the accident.

Robb also used the testimony of an eyewitness who said Fields passed him at more than 100 mph and was weaving in and out of traffic before he crossed the median and went airborne.

The defendant also denied in deposition that he was impaired, a claim his attorney attempted to support by calling into question the validity of the BAC measurement. "The defendant admitted he had been drinking, but denied that he was impaired," said Robb. "And his attorney challenged the BAC figure by arguing that the blood was not properly stored and the machine not properly calibrated."

Robb's blood alcohol analysis expert testified both on the defendant's BAC figure and the resulting state of impairment. "Our expert found that the defendant was more than 50 percent over the legal limit," said Robb."But he also described how such a blood alcohol level would affect his ability to drive a car."
According to Robb, the expert focused on the effect of alcohol on a driver's reaction time. "Our expert concluded that he had to have drunk between 12 and 13 ounces of 80-proof cognac in two and one-half hours before the accident - 12 to 13 cognacs and Coke," said Robb.

"He concluded that the defendant's BAC level rendered him totally incapable of operating a motor vehicle in a safe manner."

The defendant also told the police that he had swerved to avoid another vehicle just before the accident, said Robb, who noted that the eyewitnesses reported seeing no other vehicle.

Obstacles
Although the evidence in the case on liability was "overwhelming," according to Robb, he explained that there were a number of obstacles to a large jury award.

The first was the fact that the accident wiped out an entire family, with the result that there were no surviving financial dependents.

"What made this case unique was that no financial dependent survived as part of the plaintiff class," said Robb. " If there had been another child, this would have been a typical case in the determination of economic loss.

"Instead , we had to use our economic expert to lay a careful foundation for our economic loss claim."
The basis for that claim, said Robb, was the argument that the future earnings of the descendants were potentially available to the plaintiffs under a variety of scenarios.

Criminal Conviction
Before trial, Robb was concerned that the jury would be reluctant to assess punitive damages because the defendant had already been punished in the criminal trial one month earlier.

For this reason, Robb filed a motion in limine to bar any mention of the criminal trial during the civil trial.
"Some people think it's a good idea to have the criminal matter brought in because it can reinforce the liability of the defendant." said Robb."But we think it only makes sense to bring in such information with respect to a prior matter - as we did here on the defendant's prior unrelated drunk driving conviction.
"But as to liability, we think that if you need help establishing liability by using the criminal conviction, you'd better re-think your case."

Robb asked the jury to award $100 million in punitive damages. The jury returned a punitive damage verdict of $13.5 million, in addition to the $9.9 million in actual damages.

Robb and John Schultz, Fields' attorney, declined to comment on the issue of the collectibility of the verdict. Robb said that the plaintiffs are currently pursuing a bad faith refusal to settle claim against Fields' insurance company.

Schultz had high praise for the Robbs. "I've had the privilege of defending cases all around the state and against most of the top plaintiff guns," said Schultz. "And Gary and Anita are far and away the best I've ever seen.

"They put on more evidence in this one-week trial than you see in most trials of three or four weeks. And Anita Robbs' opening statement was the most powerful I've ever witnessed."

Robb also had praise for Schultz, whom he termed an "excellent defense lawyer" who "did the best he possibly could with some difficult facts."

The Robbs are no strangers to Lawyers Weekly's Top Verdicts list. In 1998 Gary Robb had the biggest in the state, a $25 million verdict involving the death of Jackson County circuit judge Michael Colburn. In 1997, Anita Robb and Gary Robb had the highest settlement, $14 million in a school bus products liability case. And in 1995, the Robbs combined for the highest verdict in Missouri history, $350 million in a helicopter products case, and also had the third highest verdict that year, $70 million in a companion helicopter case.




 




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Personal Injury Lawyers - Kansas City, Missouri

Personal injury is an area of law that pertains to the injury of an individual. Both physical and emotional injuries fall into this branch of tort law. A personal injury lawyer is generally involved in cases where an injury has occurred due to the negligence of another party.

Examples of cases that a personal injury lawyer in Kansas City, Missouri can assist with include workplace accidents, falling or other accidents in the home, premises liability, defective and hazardous product cases, and dental and medical malpractice cases. If negligence on behalf of another party can be proved in court, compensation may be awarded.

Personal injury attorneys can also assist with industrial disease cases that may include respiratory diseases or a decline in health due to hazardous occupational conditions. These and other medical cases are often very complex, and it is advised that all aspects of the claim be handled by an experienced attorney.

Wrongful Death Lawyers - Kansas City, Missouri

Wrongful death falls under the common law jurisdictions wherein a person may be held liable for a death. It is important to note that wrongful death is the only course of legal action in which a company, rather than an individual, is at fault for a death.

In Kansas City, Missouri, cases involving wrongful death accidents require a preponderance of evidence as the standard of proof. Generally, the suit is filed by close relatives.

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