Case details

Plaintiff: Driver’s speed during rain caused guardrail crash





Result type

Not present

brain, concussion, disfigurement, face, head, nose, scar
On May 7, 2017, plaintiff Vanessa Hernandez, 29, a kindergarten teacher and preschool administrator at a private Catholic School, was a passenger in a vehicle operated by her boyfriend, who was driving in the rain in the fast lane of northbound Interstate 5, in Oceanside. When they were just past the Oceanside Drive overpass bend, they witnessed a truck directly ahead of them lose control, careen over the west-side guardrail of the freeway, and roll over into the ditch below. Hernandez’s boyfriend immediately brought their vehicle to a stop on the west-side emergency shoulder of the freeway, and he jumped out of the vehicle and ran down into the ditch to check on the occupants of the wrecked truck. Hernandez immediately called 911, exited the driver’s side of her vehicle and walked behind it, toward the area where the crashed truck had careened into the ditch. She walked behind her vehicle so that she could communicate with her boyfriend in order to respond to the questions of the 911 operator, who was asking whether anyone inside the crashed vehicle was injured and needed emergency assistance. While Hernandez was on the phone, a vehicle operated by Wesley Wu, who was also traveling in the fast-lane of northbound I-5, came around the bend and lost control. Wu’s vehicle then spun out of control into a 360-degree rotation and struck the metal guardrail near where the prior accident had occurred. The impact caused a one-foot section of the metal guardrail to snapped off and fly in the direction of Hernandez. The piece of guardrail struck her in the middle of her face, causing her to be thrown to the ground. Hernandez sued Wu, alleging that Wu was negligent in the operation of his vehicle. Hernandez’s counsel contended that Wu failed to safely operate his vehicle under the existing conditions, in that Wu was driving at an unreasonable speed based on the rainy conditions, thereby losing control of his vehicle and causing the collision that caused Hernandez to be struck. The plaintiff’s accident reconstruction expert testified that the rear tires on the truck were bald at the time of its crash and that the rear tires of Wu’s vehicle were worn at the time of Wu’s accident. The expert opined that the condition of the vehicles’ tires was the cause of the respective spin-outs. Wu admitted that he lost control of his vehicle and that his vehicle spun into the guardrail, which caused a small section of the guardrail to fly off and strike Hernandez in the forehead. However, defense counsel argued that Wu was not responsible for causing Hernandez to suffer any injury or damages because water accumulation on the freeway from a backed up storm drain caused Wu to lose control on his vehicle. Counsel also argued that Wu lost control of his vehicle in the same area of pooled water on the freeway as the driver of the truck that had previously crashed. Thus, defense counsel argued that Wu was not responsible for losing control of his vehicle. Defense counsel contended that during discovery and through trial, Hernandez testified that Wu’s vehicle actually struck her and caused her to fly 20 feet down the embankment, despite independent eye witness testimony that Wu’s vehicle never came into contact with her. In addition, defense counsel argued that the driver of the truck was responsible for Hernandez’s alleged harm. Based on that argument, the defense requested a jury instruction under California Civil Jury Instructions (CACI) No. 453, “Injury Incurred in Course of Rescue.” According to the “rescue doctrine,” the tortfeasor whose negligence caused the reason for the rescue is responsible for any to the rescuer sustained during the rescue. Although the driver of the subject truck was not named as a party, his name was added to the special jury verdict form for apportionment of liability as a result of the jury instruction., Hernandez was struck in the face by a broken piece of guardrail, but she did not lose consciousness. She was transported from the scene to an Orange County trauma hospital for emergency care. Hernandez was diagnosed with a concussion, which resulted in a post-concussive syndrome that presented in the form of chronic, daily headaches. She also claimed she suffered a chronic pain syndrome and permanent facial scarring. Hernandez claimed that as a result of the accident, she lost nine months of full-time employment. She also claimed that, upon her return to work, she was limited in the time and duties she could perform as a kindergarten teacher and preschool administrator because of her chronic headaches and uncontrollable pain. She also claimed that she was limited in how much she could do in general on a daily basis. Hernandez further claimed that the she suffered would affect her ability to promote throughout her career. Hernandez sought recovery of $382,024 for her future medical costs, $20,703 for her past lost income, and $1.1 million to $2.4 million for her future loss of earning capacity. She also sought recovery of damages for her past and future pain and suffering. (She waived her past medical costs at trial.) Defense counsel contended that Hernandez’s primary complaints at the time of trial were chronic headaches and chronic neck pain. Defense counsel also contended that the plaintiff’s own forensic psychologist opined that Hernandez’s chronic pain was due to a somatoform disorder and that with the appropriate mental health counseling, Hernandez should get better in the future. Defense counsel noted that there was no medical testimony that Hernandez could not continue to work on a full-time basis to the end of her career. However, over the defense’s objection, the plaintiff’s vocational rehabilitation expert was permitted to speculate and testify that, in his opinion, Hernandez, who was 30 years old at the time, would not be able to work on a full-time basis because of her chronic headaches and neck pain, and that, within five years, Hernandez would be relegated to only part-time employment for the rest of her career. Based on that testimony, Hernandez was permitted to argue damages regarding her alleged future loss of earning capacity. In response, defense counsel argued that Hernandez missed a semester of work as a preschool teacher and that by the time of trial, Hernandez was back to work full-time at the same school with a promotion and earning more income than she did at the time of the accident.
Superior Court of San Diego County, Vista, CA

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