Woman Wins $36 Million Lawsuit


In a landmark decision, an East Texas jury has awarded a California woman $36 million in the largest reported verdict ever for a trailer under-ride case.  The jury returned the verdict late Friday afternoon following a four-week trial in Carthage, Texas, finding the Lufkin Industries trailer unreasonably dangerous in its design.  The jury also found that the U.S. Government regulations regarding trailer safety were inadequate to protect the public against unreasonable risks of injury or damage.

Kelleigh Falcon, a 25-year-old resident of Chino Hills, California, was visiting a relative in Carthage, Texas on October 10, 2003 when the tragic accident occurred.  Falcon was a passenger in a 2000 Ford Taurus when it struck the side of an 18-wheeler that had pulled out in front of them on Highway 59.  The vehicle went under the side of the trailer causing Ms. Falcon's severe head injury and resulting brain damage.  The driver of the vehicle, Virginia Walker, died five days later.  Ms. Falcon's two infant children were riding in the back seat and escaped with minor injuries.

A trailer 'under-ride' occurs when a vehicle impacts a trailer and goes underneath the trailer due to the difference in the height between the trailer and the passenger vehicle.  Because of this, the first impact is the trailer frame striking the windshield, exposing the occupants of the car to direct head trauma.  In these impacts, the vehicle's own occupant protection systems are rendered useless.  The 2000 Ford Taurus was a five-star rated vehicle by the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety.

The 1992 trailer was designed and manufactured by Lufkin Industries (LUFK), located in Lufkin, Texas.  While U.S. governmental regulations has required some type of rear under-ride protection since 1953, testimony in this trial demonstrated that side under-ride protection had remained a matter that the government 'hoped' the trailer industry would resolve on its own.  For this reason, the government had not mandated side under-ride protection.  Further testimony indicated that the trailer manufacturing industry had used trade associations and lobbyists to prevent the passage of any such governmental regulation.  At least one witness agreed that the industry would spend $15 million per year on lobbyists and another $14 million in campaign contributions.  Testimony from Lufkin Industries' former Chief Engineer, Lavan Watts, proved that Lufkin, like the rest of industry, had known about the dangers of side under-ride accidents since at least the mid-1960s; however, they had chosen to do nothing until the government mandated it.  Mr. Watts offered only a 'no comment' when asked whether it was Lufkin Industries' corporate decision that it was 'cheaper to pay off the victims than fix the problem."

Following 6½ hours of deliberation, the Panola County jury found that the Lufkin Industries trailer was defectively designed and that the U.S. Governmental regulations were inadequate to protect the public from unreasonable risks of injury or damage.  The jury then awarded Kelleigh Falcon and her two children $36 million and the family of Virginia Walker an additional $2.5 million.  Ms. Falcon and her two children now reside in Chino Hills, California where she is cared for by her parents, Terry and Michelle Baker.  Mr. Baker commented, "It is my hope that my family's loss will ultimately mean something for the greater good and that another family won't suffer like mine.  If that happens, then maybe some good can come from this tragedy."

Kelleigh Falcon was represented by Chip Ferguson and Chris Coco of Beaumont's Provost-Umphrey.  Provost-Umphrey is one of the nation's premier products liability firms, including their role as lead counsel for the State of Texas in the tobacco litigation.

Provost-Umphrey was associated in this trial with local counsel, Robert Underwood and Collin Underwood of Carthage, as well as guardian ad litems Duane Parker and Ken Hill, also of Carthage.  The Walker family was represented by Ray Thomas and Oscar Gomez of McAllen.

Lead counsel Chip Ferguson stated, "The Jury in this case has sent a strong message by rendering the largest verdict ever in this type of case.  They not only found that the Lufkin Industries' trailer was defective but they also found that the United States government's safety regulations were inadequate to protect the public from an unreasonable risk of injury and death.  This verdict mandates that both industry and the government fix the problem, and make our roads safer."  Noting that trailer manufacturing is a multi-billion dollar industry, Ferguson added, "We have an industry that creates $10 billion every year in revenues.  It is time for them to use those resources for something other than lobbying and politicking.  It is time for them to pool those resources to make us safer."

Co-counsel Chris Coco added, "Lufkin Industries and the entire trailer manufacturing industry knew about the dangers of side under-rides for decades.  Rather than testing and developing solutions, they chose to ignore it, to do nothing.  They used their influence to purchase de-regulation, all at the expense of victims like Kelleigh Falcon.  Her life was ruined because of this.  Her family was torn to shreds because of this.  Lufkin Industries, the entire industry and our government all have her blood on their hands.  It is time for them to clean up this mess."

The verdict followed a four-week trial in Judge Terry Bailey's courtroom and resulted in a heated debate regarding trailer safety.  Lufkin Industries contended that their inaction was justified until the federal government required them to do something.  The Plaintiffs countered with strong evidence that the government encouraged the industry to handle the issue on their own and with proof of several prototypical designs that would have prevented the accident.

"This verdict should be felt all the way from Carthage, Texas to Washington, D.C., and everywhere in between," Ferguson added.  He continued, " The sad truth is that Lufkin Industries, like others, ignored scientific evidence, choosing instead to hide behind their industry's influence and 'junk science'.  Perhaps today we finally have the motivation for a change.  Perhaps today we finally have the impetus for real change, for real safety."

Ferguson expects that the Court will enter a Final Judgment sometime in early December.