A Texas jury has awarded $24 million to a woman who was sideswiped in her vehicle by a Coca-Cola employee who was talking on a cell phone while driving on the job.
Vanice Chatman-Wilson, of Corpus Christi, was left with severe neck and back pain that required surgery. A jury found in her favor, with actual damages of $14 million and punitive damages of $10 million.
Coca-Cola has vowed to appeal the verdict, but plaintiff's attorney Thomas J. Henry says the company should step forward to help resolve the nation's distracted-driving problem. According to an article at legalnews.com, the case could be seen as a wake-up call for employers who have lax rules about employee use of cell phones on the job:
Thomas J. Henry, one of the plaintiff's attorneys, attributed the jury's verdict to the broader public safety issue.
"Corporations big and small are getting a wake-up call that allowing your employees to use cell phones while driving is a big risk," said Henry, whose firm Thomas J. Henry Injury Attorneys has offices in Houston and Corpus Christi, Texas. "Basically, distracted driving is as dangerous as drunk driving."
Some news outlets have reported that the crash was caused by a Coca-Cola employee driving a delivery truck. It actually was caused by a female marketing employee who was driving a station wagon. Reports legalnews.com:
The accident occurred in August of 2010 at an intersection in downtown Corpus Christi, Texas. Chatman-Wilson was on the way to her job at a payday lending shop. The Coca-Cola employee, Araceli Venessa Cabral, was on a business call on her hands-free cell phone, per company policy.
She thought she had a green turn arrow and turned left into oncoming traffic, crushing Chatman-Wilson's car on the driver's side.
Robert Hilliard, of Hilliard Munoz Gonzalez LLP in Corpus Christi, the other lead attorney for the plaintiff, said the driver was as stunned as his client by the crash. She had no idea she had done anything wrong.
"She was so involved in that conversation, she had no clue she was turning against the light," he said. "The sad thing is that Coca-Cola driver will go to her grave thinking that she had that green turn arrow, even when her own lawyers admit she didn't."
What was the key issue in the trial? Here is an explanation from legalnews.com:
At trial, Henry and Hilliard hammered home the point that just because a driver isn't physically holding a phone doesn't mean he or she isn't distracted by the conversation. Hilliard said the plaintiff's biggest hurdle was challenging jurors' views of appropriate safeguards in cell phone use.
"This was not a group of people who fully appreciated the diverse risks of distracted driving," he said. "They told us afterward they were surprised to learn that there is just as much cognitive distraction with a hands-free set as with a hand-held cell phone. They knew it was bad to dial, or to text. You don't always appreciate the danger when you're not looking down, but you can be looking straight ahead but completely distracted by the conversation you're having."
The science behind distracted driving is not in dispute, and it was a big part of the trial:
To bolster their case, Henry and Hilliard cited study after study showing the toll of distracted driving due to cell phone use. For example, according to a 2010 National Highway Traffic Safety Administration study, 5,474 people were killed on U.S. roadways and an estimated 448,000 more were injured in motor vehicle crashes attributed to distracted driving in 2009. Approximately 1 in 5 of the deaths was linked directly to cell phone use.
The attorneys also pointed to studies that show the dangers of cell phone use are not limited to the manipulation of a handheld device. One of the seminal studies cited at trial indicated that cell phone use of any sort -- hand-held or hands-free -- creates a 37 percent cognitive distraction, stealing more than a third of the driver's attention.
Testimony showed that Cabral, the Coca-Cola driver, was on the road about three hours each work day, and for most of that time, she was using her cell phone. She testified that she thought the hands-free phone made it safe. Chatman-Watson, the driver of the car that was hit, knows differently. She is left with a 25-percent disability:
Henry said Coca-Cola now has an opportunity not to blindly defend its current policy but to become one of the leaders on the distracted driving issue.
"There are some big mega corporations that have taken the lead," he said. "Those companies are going to keep their employees -- and the rest of us -- safe. It's a question of whether Coca-Cola is willing to be one of them."