Fresno woman wins $11.5m suit against Lion Raisins
A jury on Thursday awarded more than $11.5 million to a former Fresno school teacher who was severely injured by a hunk of iron that flew off a tractor-trailer on Highway 99 and hit her in the head.
Fresno attorney Richard Watters, who represented Susan Reyes and her husband, Adrian, in their suit against Selma-based Lion Raisins and its driver, said in almost 40 years practicing law, the verdict is one of the largest he can recall.
And, he said, it was warranted.
“This poor lady had a catastrophic accident occur,” he said.
Susan Reyes — who was 41 at the time — has no memory of the September 2010 accident, she said after the verdict, as well as the month before it and six weeks afterward.
She has had seizures since the accident, including two at home during the almost monthlong trial.
Because of the seizures, Reyes has lost her driver’s license and has been unable to continue her job as a special-assignment teacher with Fresno Unified, Watters said. She previously taught at both Pyle and Aynesworth elementary schools.
Reyes said she struggles with short-term memory losses and now has severe headaches. She credited her husband and three sons — one now at Fresno State, the other two at Clovis West High School — with helping her cope with the accident’s aftermath.
“Because my family is wonderful, life is rather pleasant,” she said. “But less than perfect.”
Reyes was driving alone to Orange County on Sept. 17, 2010, to watch her oldest son, Luke — then a Clovis West senior — play in a football game. The two had then planned to look at colleges the next day.
Watters, and trial briefs filed by the two sides, detailed what happened as Reyes drove her 2009 Acura through Bakersfield on Highway 99:
She was following a big rig owned by Lion Raisins. The trailers behind the truck had cables that held empty wooden raisin bins in place. The cables went around four-foot-long corner pieces that were made of iron.
The load shifted and a corner iron flew off the truck, “likely” hit the pavement and then went through the Acura’s windshield and into “the right skull and brain” of Reyes. She lost control of the car and it ended up against the highway’s median divider.
Taken to Kern Medical Center in Bakersfield, Reyes was at “the lowest coma scale you can be at and live,” Watters said. Emergency surgery saved her life.
All the while, her family had no idea of the accident, and even two days later still couldn’t find out details, Adrian Reyes said.
Reyes suffered a traumatic brain injury and has “serious behavioral impairment” and a personality change, Watters said.
Lion Raisins did not return a call seeking comment on the verdict, and it was unclear whether it would appeal the judgment.
But its trial brief described a different post-accident life for Reyes, starting with “a very impressive recovery.”
It said she returned to work at Fresno Unified and worked the remainder of the 2010-11 school year. That August, she not only was working, but driving herself to work.
It also said her recovery wasn’t problem-free. Seizures forced her to apply for a disability retirement in November 2011.
But the brief for Lion and Richard Oh, the driver of the truck, also said she has made a “substantial recovery from these injuries and … further improvement is likely to [come] in the future.”
During the trial, attorneys for Lion Raisins and Oh said Reyes could control her seizures and get back her driver’s license.
After the verdict, Fresno County Superior Court Judge Mark Snauffer told jurors they had done well in navigating a “complicated case.”
The verdict was divided into money for past and future medical expenses, past and future earnings losses, and pain and suffering. The 12-person jury also awarded $350,000 to Adrian Reyes for damages.
Jurors had differing votes on all seven of the awards, ranging from unanimous to 9-3 in favor.
Taken together, the total award was more than $11.8 million.
Recent Fresno County civil juries have made big-money awards in crash lawsuits, but not as big as Thursday’s.
For example, a Fresno woman was awarded $10.5 million in 2008 for severe brain injuries suffered after her car was struck by a dump truck driven by a drunk employee of DAV Charities of Central California.
And in 2010, two motorists who were seriously injured in a 2008 rear-end collision on Highway 180 in Fresno were awarded more than $9 million in damages.
By John Ellis