Bus Dealership Prevails In $58M Fatal Rollover Trial

Posted by David Siegel on Apr 27, 2015 5:07:00 PM


Defense attorney Douglas Robinson shows jurors a photograph during his closing arguments of the scene of the fatal tour bus rollover accident that killed two tourists and injured eight others. Click here to see video from the trial. Click here for a copy of the complaint.

Los Angeles — A California bus dealership dodged a potential $58 million wrongful death verdict on Monday, after a state court jury found a tour bus that rolled over while taking a group of Chinese tourists to visit the Grand Canyon was not defective due to lacking passenger seat belts.

The jury deliberated for less than a full day following a two-week trial before deciding 10-2 that the 2006-model Starcraft tour bus sold by L.A. Truck Centers LLC was not defective. Attorneys for the plaintiffs claimed the dealer should have paid an extra $168 to equip the vehicle with passenger belts before selling it to tour group operator TBE International Inc.

David Lira of Girardi Keese had asked the jury to award over $58 million in damages to eight passengers who suffered injuries including limb amputations and traumatic brain injuries, and to the estates of two passengers killed in the crash, according to a Courtroom View Network webcast of the trial. He argued that while seat belts wouldn’t have prevented passengers from being hurt in the rollover, they would have prevented all fatal and catastrophic injuries.

The accident occurred in 2010, when the bus’ driver attempted to make a sharp turn on a road in Arizona, according to the plaintiffs’ complaint. The mid-size bus, manufactured by Berkshire Hathaway-owned Forest River Inc., rolled over twice, ejecting some passengers and sending others tumbling around the bus.

The bus provided seat belts for the driver and the tour leader in the front seat, and both of those passengers walked away from the accident without serious injury, Lira told the jury. He claimed L.A. Truck Centers knew the bus would be used on roads where rollover accidents were possible, and that selling the bus without seat belts for all passengers meant the vehicle was not crashworthy.  

Federal safety standards do not require buses like the one involved in the rollover incident to be equipped with passenger belts, a point made repeatedly by Douglas Robinson of Shook Hardy & Bacon LLP during his closing argument on behalf of L.A. Truck Centers.

Robinson said TBE owner Betty Qi specifically requested a bus that lacked passenger belts in order to save money, and that L.A. Truck Centers can’t be found negligent for selling a vehicle in a configuration requested by a customer that meets the government’s existing safety requirements.

“You haven’t heard one piece of evidence and not even a claim by Mr. Lira, that they did anything different than any other bus dealer,” Robinson said during his closing argument, noting that buses without passenger belts were sold by dealers besides L.A. Truck Centers. “The government said it was okay. The manufacturer said it was okay.”

Robinson said that while the facts of the underlying accident were not in dispute, jurors should reject the plaintiffs’ claims that the bus driver, Zhu Li, was not responsible for the passengers’ injuries. Instead they should find him solely responsible, Robinson argued.

“He drove this 11,000 pound bus at a clip of 20 miles-per-hour above the cautionary limit around a sharp curve in a large vehicle that does not drive like a Ford Mustang,” Robinson said.  

The jury agreed with the plaintiffs in finding that L.A. Truck Centers wasn’t just a dealer but also a manufacturer of the bus, however the application of Indiana law to the case by Judge J. Stephen Czuleger set too high a bar for the plaintiffs to clear with their product liability claim, according to veteran California litigator Brian Panish of Panish Shea & Boyle LLP.

The Starcraft bus was manufactured in Indiana, so Judge Czuleger applied that state’s product liability law, which does not allow for punitive damages and requires a product to be “unreasonably dangerous” in order to be defective.

“Indiana product liability law is very difficult,” Panish told CVN. “Compliance with the standard in the industry is a complete defense. Since other manufacturers were not providing seat belts that made it ok under Indiana law and the product could not be defective.”

The plaintiffs settled with TBE and Starcraft before the trial began for a total of $8.25 million, according to court records.

Attorneys for the plaintiffs did not immediately respond to requests for comment from CVN, and attorneys for L.A. Truck Centers declined to comment on the verdict.

The plaintiffs are represented by David Lira and Thomas Girardi of Girardi Keese.

L.A. Truck Centers is represented by Douglas Robinson and Janet Hickson of Shook Hardy & Bacon LLP.

The case is Hairu Chen, et al. v. LA Truck Centers LLC, case number BC469935, in the Superior Court of the State of California for the County of Los Angeles.

David Siegel can be reached at dsiegel@cvn.com.

Previous coverage:

Heavyweight Firms Square Off At Trial Over Deadly Tour Bus Rollover

Related Coverage:

Chrysler Smacked With $150M Verdict In First Jeep Fuel Tank Fire Trial

Ford Settles $31M Seat Belt Design Suit, Avoiding Mistrial

Click here to check out more product liability cases in CVN's one-of-kind video archive. 

Topics: Products Liability, Transportation, California

Two Tobacco Verdicts, Openings on Damages Highlight the Engle Progeny Review for the Week of April 20

Posted by Arlin Crisco on Apr 24, 2015 11:51:00 PM


Robert Shields details the smoking history of Rayfield Brown, who died of lung cancer in 1995. Shields is representing Brown's widow as trial opened on damages Thursday. 

Brown v. Philip Morris USA

With damages alone at issue, opposing counsel sparred over millions in potential punitive liability as trial opened Thursday in Mary Brown’s suit for the lung cancer death of smoker Rayfield Brown.

Watch Video from Tobacco Trials Doffermyre Shields’ Robert Shields, representing the Browns, told jurors in openings that Philip Morris participated in a decades-long campaign to hide the dangers of smoking that helped keep Brown and other smokers hooked on cigarettes throughout their lives. “Claiming that there is doubt about the science (that smoking is dangerous), reassuring the smoker that if we ever find anything harmful we’ll take it out, plays into that need for a rationale to continue to smoke,” Shields said. “It reassures that it’s OK to continue smoking, because after all, before you get any (health) problem, we’ll figure out the answer.”

Rayfield Brown died of lung cancer in 1995, after more than 40 years of smoking. His widow, Mary, and daughter, Jennifer, are seeking both compensatory and punitive damages in the wrongful death suit.   

The trial will determine only the amount of damages the Browns should receive. In August 2013, a jury found Rayfield Brown was a member of the Engle class and that Philip Morris was liable on the Browns’ conspiracy claim. However, the jury failed to answer questions on damages and punitive liability.

In Thursday’s openings, Shook Hardy’s Kenneth Reilly, representing Philip Morris, told jurors that the evidence did not support imposing punitives because there was no link between the tobacco maker's concealment of smoking’s dangers and Brown’s smoking.

Reilly noted that his client’s 1953 agreement with other tobacco makers to conceal the health effects and addictiveness of cigarettes occurred at least three years after Brown had become a regular smoker. Reilly also told jurors that there was no evidence Brown would have quit smoking earlier if Philip Morris acknowledged that smoking was hazardous.

This is the case's fourth trip in front of CVN cameras. In 2012, Circuit Judge A.C. Soud was disqualified during the case's first CVN trial  when he compared former Philip Morris CEO Joseph Cullman to Nazi war criminal Josef Mengele. Judge Aaron Bowden then declared a mistrial in a January 2013 proceeding when the jury was unable to reach a verdict. Judge Harvey Jay, who presided over the September 2013 trial that yielded an incomplete verdict, presides over the current proceeding.

Next week: Brown's attorneys will continue their case in chief. 


Russo v. Philip Morris

Verdict: For the defense.

The nation's two largest tobacco makers prevailed Thursday morning in a wrongful death suit brought by the daughter of a decades-long smoker who claimed the companies' deception fueled her mother's nicotine addiction, leading to her respiratory disease and death. Read the article.


Ryan v. R.J. Reynolds

Verdict: $46.5 million, including $25 million in punitives, for the plaintiff.

Jurors found R.J. Reynolds liable for $25 million in punitive damages early Tuesday afternoon in a couple’s suit against the tobacco manufacturer for the respiratory disease they contend was caused by the company's cigarettes and fraud. Read the article.  

Arlin Crisco can be reached at acrisco@cvn.com.

Our weekly review is curated from our unequaled gavel-to-gavel coverage of Florida's Engle progeny cases.

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Topics: Negligence, Products Liability, tobacco, Engle Progeny, Florida, Engle Progeny Review, Russo v. Philip Morris, Ryan v. R.J. Reynolds, Brown v. Philip Morris USA

Florida Trial Highlight: Allen v. Buckner

Posted by Courtroom View Network on Apr 24, 2015 3:26:00 PM


"If you're going to tell falsehoods, you better have a dang good memory," says Nicholas Maniotis during closings of Allen v. Buckner. 


Click Here FREE Florida Trial Video Samples Credibility is often the primary dividing line between winning and losing at trial, especially in personal injury negligence cases. In Allen v. Buckner, James Allen sought more than $1 million for the disc herniation he said he suffered in a late-night auto wreck with Dale Buckner. However, Allen's credibility took center stage throughout the trial. During closing arguments, Buckner's attorney, Nicholas Maniotis, focused on Allen's pain complaints, which Maniotis contended weren't supported by the evidence. Recounting video of Allen after the accident, Maniotis told jurors, "You saw the film. He's walking and moving normally, getting in and and out of cars normal. There wasn't (anyone) over there with 10 out of 10 pain, or seven out of 10 pain."

The powerful close and Maniotis' challenge to Allen's credibility succeeded, with jurors delivering a defense verdict. 

Read more about the trial. 

Watch Allen v. Buckner on demand. 


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Topics: Negligence, Florida, Allen v. Buckner, Video Highlight

Tobacco Makers Cleared in $14 Million Wrongful Death Suit

Posted by Arlin Crisco on Apr 23, 2015 10:16:40 PM


William Geraghty delivers closing arguments in Tina Russo's wrongful death suit against R.J. Reynolds and Geraghty's client, Philip Morris. The tobacco makers prevailed against Russo's claim that their deception about the dangers of smoking led to her mother's nicotine addiction, respiratory disease, and death. Click here to watch the trial on demand. 

Miami—The nation's two largest tobacco makers prevailed Thursday morning in a wrongful death suit brought by the daughter of a decades-long smoker who claimed the companies' deception fueled her mother's nicotine addiction, leading to her respiratory disease and death.

Watch Video from Tobacco Trials Jurors found that, although Phyllis Frazier was addicted to nicotine, her addiction was not the legal cause of her chronic obstructive pulmonary disease and the string of health problems that turned fatal. The decision cleared tobacco giants R.J. Reynolds and Philip Morris of liability in the Engle progeny suit, brought by Tina Russo, Frazier’s daughter.

Russo sought $14 million in damages, including $10 million for herself and $4 million for her sister, Cherie Westgate.

Frazier, a smoker for more than three decades, quit in 1992, one year after doctors diagnosed her with chronic obstructive pulmonary disease. She ultimately underwent a lung transplant before dying from skin cancer that spread to her brain in 2012. Russo contended that drugs Frazier took to combat her body’s attempted rejection of the new lungs weakened her immune system and allowed the cancer to spread.

The issue of causation linking Frazier’s health problems to nicotine addiction, on which the verdict ultimately turned, became a key focus during the two-week trial. During closings Wednesday, Gerson & Schwartz's Philip Gerson, representing Russo, reminded jurors of evidence that Frazier was addicted to cigarettes, including records from one of her treating physicians. Gerson said that addiction led to more than 2 million exposures to the dangerous chemicals in cigarettes over her 32-year smoking history. “Does cigarette smoke cause these diseases (such as COPD)?”  Gerson asked. “Of course it does.”

However, the defense countered by arguing that Frazier’s failure to make a concerted effort to quit smoking before 1992 caused her respiratory disease and the complications that followed it. In Wednesday’s closings, Shook Hardy’s William Geraghty, representing Philip Morris, reminded jurors of deposition testimony in which Frazier admitted that she continued smoking for decades after knowing the its dangers. “It is Ms. Frazier’s decision to smoke cigarettes for many years in the face of all of those warnings (about cigarettes), and her decision not to make a determined and committed effort to quit until 1992,” Geraghty said. “That is the one and only legal cause in this case.”

The suit is one of thousands of similar Engle progeny lawsuits filed against tobacco companies in Florida. The cases arise from a 2006 Florida Supreme Court decision decertifying Engle v. Liggett Group Inc., a class-action tobacco case originally filed in 1994. Although the state’s supreme court ruled Engle cases must be tried individually, it found qualifying Engle progeny plaintiffs could rely on certain jury findings in the original case, including the conclusion that tobacco companies sold a dangerous, addictive product. To qualify, however, smokers must prove they were addicted to nicotine and that their addiction caused certain smoking-related injuries.

This is not the Russo case's first time before a jury. Despite the defense win in this trial, the Russo case will likely have a wider impact as the basis of a Florida Supreme Court opinion rendering it easier for plaintiffs statewide to recover on Engle fraud claims. A 2010 defense verdict in Russo, covered by CVN, was reversed by the state’s Third District Court of Appeal, which also found that Florida’s statute of repose for fraud claims did not require plaintiffs prove reliance on fraud within the law’s 12-year period. Earlier this month, the Florida Supreme Court upheld that decision on the repose issue, settling a split between the state’s appellate courts on the matter.

Neither the parties' attorneys nor tobacco company representatives could immediately be reached for comment.

 Related Information

Gerson & Schwartz’s Philip Gerson represents Tina Russo. Shook Hardy’s William Geraghty represents Philip Morris USA. Jones Day’s Geoffrey Beach represents R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Co.   

Watch gavel-to-gavel coverage of Russo v. Philip Morris. 

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Topics: Negligence, Products Liability, tobacco, Engle Progeny, Florida, Russo v. Philip Morris

Georgia Trial Highlight: Evans v. Norfolk Southern Railway

Posted by Steve Silver on Apr 22, 2015 5:22:26 PM


In the recent Fulton County Superior Court case of Winfred Evans v. Norfolk Southern Railway et al. (2012CV223527), the railroad admitted liability for the accident in which Evans was injured but, in its closing statement, suggested that fair compensation for his injuries might be approximately $100,000, far less than the $1.5 million Evans was seeking. The requested damages disputed by the railroad included nearly $700,000 in future earnings loss due to the shortened work expectancy predicted by Evans’ witnesses. However, because Evans had returned to work after the injury and was still working at the time of the trial, his attorney James Holland needed to make sure the jury did not reduce or reject the lost earnings claim out of a sense of fairness.

Click Here FREE Georgia Trial Video Samples In the final minutes of his closing statement, Holland appealed to the jury’s sense of justice to refute the defense’s suggestions. He paraphrased a famous quotation by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., that “injustice anywhere threatens justice everywhere.” Holland characterized the $1.5M in damages he was seeking as “the amount that is true and fair and right.” On the other hand, the “discounted compensation” suggested by the defense was not justice. Holland concluded by reminding the jury that Evans’ medical condition was permanent and that he would have to live with the jury’s verdict for the rest of his life. Holland ended the statement by saying simply, “Give him full justice.”

The jury’s verdict was slightly over $1.2 million and included the exact amount Holland requested for future earnings loss.

CVN's earlier coverage of this case (including other clips from the trial) can be found here and here.

Steve Silver can be contacted at ssilver@cvn.com.


Watch on-demand video of the trial as soon as it becomes available. 

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Topics: Negligence, Georgia, Evans v. Norfolk Southern Railway

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