A civil jury awarded a Clovis couple $5.7 million for medical bills and emotional pain after their family van was rear-ended by a Southern California Edison truck in a snowstorm near Shaver Lake about two years ago.
It was a hefty amount for a personal injury case, considering no one in the van was left paralyzed, said a local attorney not associated with the case.
Fresno County Superior Court jurors deliberated over three days before awarding Manuel Ornelas, 42, nearly $160,000 for his current medical bills and lost wages, and $1.2 million for future medical bills and lost wages. Jurors also gave him $4.16 million for past and future physical pain and emotional suffering. His wife, Corina Ornelas, 36, received $2,426 for medical bills and $200,000 for emotional suffering and for loss of consortium.
After the verdict was announced, both sides shook hands in Judge Alan Simpson's courtroom.
The accident happened during a snowstorm on Highway 168 near Shaver Lake on Jan. 25, 2009. Manuel Ornelas had safely stopped his van in an appropriate area to install snow chains, said the couple's attorneys, Patrick Toole and Richard Watters.
A 10,000-pound Edison truck rear-ended the van, causing Ornelas to suffer severe injuries to his back and pelvis, the lawyers said.
During the trial, Watters argued that the utility company was negligent because its driver, Alejandro Luquin, wasn't trained to drive in the snow and the truck didn't have snow chains.
Watters also said Luquin, then 23, was driving fast in dangerous conditions and that he had passed several signs that read, "Chains required."
Because of the accident, Manuel Ornelas, an engineer for the California Department of Transportation, is in constant and intense pain and unable to work, Watters told the jury.
The former marathon runner also needs a cane to walk, can't control his bowels or sit for long periods of time, or do simple things such as pick up his children, mow the lawn, push a grocery cart, he said.
Attorney Gregory Mason, who represented the utility company, however, told the jury that with the correct medical therapy Ornelas could work part-time and lead a productive life for his family.
Fresno attorney Daniel Baradat, who is not associated with the case, said Watters and Toole had an uphill battle because if a plaintiff isn't in a wheelchair or a paraplegic, jurors have a hard time evaluating pain and suffering. Many times, these types of plaintiffs will settle for less than $2 million, he said.
At the start of the trial, the couple sought $10 million from Southern California Edison, but the utility countered with only $1.7 million, Watters said. But as the trial progressed with the testimony of medical experts, Edison's offer went to $5 million, but the couple rejected it, he said.
If the utility company had been found negligent, it could have been on the hook for even more damages. But in the end, the jury found that Edison was not negligent in training or supervising the driver who rear-ended the van.
"It was an unfortunate accident," Mason told the jury.