Intoxicated driver abandons pickup truck on highway, leading to fatal crash

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Verdicts & Settlements

April 26, 2011

Intoxicated driver abandons pickup truck on highway, leading to fatal crash 

After having at least eight drinks at a bar one night, Rodney Gonzalez drove off in a pickup truck leased by his employer, Veolia Water North America Operating Services LLC. Veolia provided the truck to Gonzalez, who was on 24-hour call for the company.

While Gonzalez was driving on a Louisiana highway, he lost control of the truck, which struck the guardrail and came to rest in the left lane. Gonzalez left the disabled truck—which was dark in color and did not have its headlights on—sitting on the highway. A few minutes later, Jonathan Mouton, driving a tractor-trailer, struck the pickup. The cab of the tractor-trailer erupted in flames.

James Thistlethwaite, a 48-year-old passenger in the tractor-trailer, was trapped in the cab for about 15 seconds. Thistlethwaite suffered second- and third-degree burns over 40 percent of his body and inhalation injuries, which led to respiratory complications. He died eight days later in a hospital’s burn unit. He is survived by his adult daughter. Mouton, 34, suffered posttraumatic stress disorder and required counseling for about a year.

Mouton and Thistlethwaite’s daughter sued Gonzalez, alleging he was driving while intoxicated and negligently abandoned the wrecked vehicle in the highway. The plaintiffs also sued Veolia, alleging that the company was negligent in entrusting the vehicle to Gonzalez, who had multiple prior convictions for driving while intoxicated and other offenses. Other evidence showed that Veolia had previously fired Gonzalez after he tested positive for cocaine but had rehired him about six months before the incident.

The plaintiffs did not claim medical expenses, and Thistlethwaite’s daughter did not claim lost earnings. Mouton claimed about $100,000 in past and future lost earnings based on his inability to return to truck driving in the immediate future.

The defendants argued that Gonzalez was not in the course and scope of his employment at the time of the incident. They also argued that Mouton was speeding and failed to keep to a proper lookout, and that he could have driven around the pickup truck. The defendants also denied that Gonzalez was intoxicated and argued that he had passed a standard field sobriety test given by a state trooper after the incident.

The plaintiffs reached a confidential pretrial settlement with the joint primary insurer for Gonzalez and Veolia, and the case went to trial against two excess carriers, with Gonzalez and Veolia remaining on the verdict form as nominal defendants for purposes of allocating fault.

The jury found that Gonzalez was intoxicated at the time of the incident and that this was a cause of the crash. These findings permitted the jury to consider punitive damages under Louisiana law. The jury also found that Gonzalez was not in the course and scope of his employment but that Veolia was negligent for entrusting the vehicle to him. The jury awarded about $4.1 million in compensatory damages—allocating fault at 50 percent each to Gonzalez and Veolia—and $25 million in punitive damages against Gonzalez. The punitive damages award was divided equally between the two plaintiffs.

Citation: Thistlethwaite v. Gonzalez, Nos. 66963, 66,596 (La., St. Charles Parish Dist. Feb. 18, 2011).

Plaintiff counsel: Robert E. Kleinpeter and Jay G. McMains, both of Baton Rouge, Louisiana; C. Michael Alder, Beverly Hills, California; Blake R. David, Lafayette, Louisiana; and Robert A. Brenner, Woodland Hills, California.

Shared plaintiff experts: Michael S. Gillen, accident reconstruction, Baton Rouge; Laura Plunkett, toxicology, Houston; and Everett G. Dillman, economics, El Paso, Texas.

Thistlethwaite’s expert: Dhaval Adhvaryu, burn medicine, Baton Rouge.

Mouton’s experts: Robert Gisclair, vocational rehabilitation, Baton Rouge; and Ted Friedberg, psychology, Lafayette.

Defense experts: Charles Prewitt, mechanical engineering, and William George, toxicology, both of New Orleans.

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