Taking Accountability into Account 

WPDN recently represented a client who assumed responsibility for a fatal bus crash which resulted in three deaths and personal injuries to several others.  After resolving the three wrongful death claims and other personal injury claims which arose out of this accident, one passenger on the bus sued WPDN’s client, Powder River Transportation, and its driver, Rhoda Steel, seeking $28 million in compensatory and punitive damages from both Defendants.  WPDN successfully argued the punitive damage claim against the company should be dismissed and, through the effective presentation of evidence at trial, convinced the Plaintiff to dismiss the punitive damage claim against driver Rhoda Steel.  In the end, the jury awarded $310,000, the exact amount suggested by the Defense in the closing argument for compensatory damages.

The case, which took place in Campbell County, was presided over by District Judge Thomas W. Rumpke, and it was tried in front of a jury of 13, eight men and five women. Anna Mitchell, of Aladdin Wyoming, was seeking $28 million in damages for the pain, suffering, emotional distress and loss of quality of life as the result of a 2014 crash on Highway 59, in Wyoming. ($1M per year for the rest of her natural life).

WPDN Attorneys Ryan Schwartz and Pat Murphy agreed that a terrible accident had occurred and that their clients, Powder River Transportation, as well as Ms. Steel, were liable.  They did not agree, however, that $28 million was a realistic sum to be awarded, or that punitive damages were appropriate.  This was what Pat and Ryan argued, and the court and jury agreed.

Punitive damages are, according to Schwartz, “a dangerous aspect of litigation for defendants.  The amount awarded for punitive damages depends on the financial condition of the defendant, and the jury is asked to determine an amount which will send a message to the defendant (and others similarly situated) that the conduct was not acceptable.  It is not based on actual damage suffered by the Plaintiff.”

Schwartz and Murphy successfully argued against the punitive damage claim. Judge Rumpke agreed, and punitive damages against PRTS were dismissed by the Court, leaving only the punitive damage claim against driver Rhoda Steel.  In August of 2015, Ms. Steel had pled guilty to three amended charges of misdemeanor vehicular manslaughter and was sentenced to 30 days in jail.  She felt enormous guilt for her part in the accident and further noted that it was, in fact, she who was at fault.  “There was a very emotional moment during the trial,” Schwartz described, “where the driver of the bus had a complete emotional breakdown while asking the Plaintiff and the jury for forgiveness.”  After this powerful testimony, Plaintiff voluntarily dismissed her punitive damage claim against Ms. Steel.   

The two opposing sides then argued the rest of the case.

The plaintiff’s attorneys alleged that the accident had damaged their client’s vertebrae and spinal cord, necessitating multiple neck surgeries.  Plaintiff also described her “daily PTSD” to the jury.  The defense argued that the Plaintiff had preexisting injuries unrelated to the accident and that her PTSD wasn’t really as severe as Plaintiff suggested.  The jury agreed with the defense.

After deliberating for two hours, the jury returned to the courtroom and awarded the plaintiff $310,000 for damages suffered.

There is never a victory when lives are lost and people are injured, but the judgment rendered by the jury was deemed fair by the client and its representative.

“We had a really wonderful client and client representative,” Ryan Schwartz stated. “They personally knew some of the folks who were hurt in the accident.  It was a very personal case for them.  One of the men that died in the accident was a relative of the owner of the company.”

It was a hard case for all parties involved, but WPDN’s client assumed responsibility and they believe that the $310,000 verdict was a just and fair decision.  The defense strategy of accepting responsibility for the accident – but contesting the nature and extent of Plaintiff’s injuries – was a winning strategy.