Driver is hit by drunk driver; quadriplegia. $125 million. Ventura County.
Young man, driving to work in his parents’ uninsured car, is hit by drunk driver and rendered a quadriplegic. Insurer refuses $75K combined policy limit demands.
- Case Name: Francisco A. Briones v. Christopher Lee Zink
- Court and Case Number: Ventura Superior Court / 56-2013-00435440-CU-PA-VTA
- Date of Verdict or Judgment: Friday, January 22, 2016
- Date Action was Filed: Thursday, April 25, 2013
- Type of Case: DUI Accident, Vehicles - Auto vs. Auto
- Judge or Arbitrator(s): Hon. John Nho Trong Nguyen
Plaintiffs: Francisco Briones, 21
Defendants: Christopher Zink
- Type of Result: Jury Verdict
- Gross Verdict or Award: $125,168,202
- Contributory/Comparative Negligence: The jury found that plaintiff was 0% negligent for the crash. The jury also found that defendant acted with malice.
- Trial or Arbitration Time: 9 days.
- Jury Deliberation Time: 1 day.
- Jury Polls: Past medical damages of $740,017 were stipulated. The jury alternated between 9-3 and 10-2 on the various remaining special and general damages. The finding of malice and the punitive damages award were unanimous.
Attorney for the Plaintiff:
Gary A. Dordick, A Law Corporation by Gary Dordick and Diana S. Diskin, Beverly Hills.
Attorney for the Defendant:
Benton, Orr, Duval & Buckingham by Bruce Finck, Ventura.
Plaintiff’s Medical Expert(s):
Javier Romero, M.D., emergency room/trauma medicine, Ventura.
James M. Herman, M.D., neurosurgery, Ventura.
DeWayne Beckner, toxicology, Northridge.
Sharon Kawai, M.D., physiatry/life care planning, Fullerton.
Thomas Hedge, M.D., physiatry/life care planning, Northridge.
Fernando Gonzalez, Ph.D., psychology, Downey.
Plaintiff's Technical Expert(s):
Ted Kobayashi, M.S., accident reconstruction, Livermore.
Tamorah Hunt, Ph.D., economics, Santa Ana.
Defendant's Technical Expert(s):
Stein Husher, M.S., accident reconstruction, Camarillo.
Anthony Stein, Ph.D., human factors, La Canada.
John C. Meyers, M.S., vocational rehabilitation, Ventura.
David Weiner, M.B.A., economics, Los Angeles.
Kathy Corona, medical billing.
Facts and Background
Facts and Background:
Shortly before 5:00 a.m. on March 23, 2013, plaintiff Francisco Briones, 21, was on his way to work at a warehouse in a car owned by his parents. The car was not insured. Plaintiff was in the process of turning left on a green light from Channel Islands Boulevard onto Rice Avenue; another car in front of him had already proceeded into the intersection and turned left safely. As plaintiff proceeded into the intersection, he was hit by a vehicle driven by defendant Christopher Lee Zink, who was drunk: His blood alcohol level was 0.14 and he also admitted that he had not slept in 24 hours and had fallen asleep at the wheel. Defendant entered the intersection on a red light, driving approximately 50 mph.
Defendant Zink was charged with and pled guilty to violating Vehicle Code section 23153(a) [felony driving while under the influence of alcohol and causing bodily injury]. He was also found guilty of Penal Code section 12022.7(b) [inflicting great bodily injury in the commission of a felony]. He is currently serving a seven-year prison sentence in Stockton, California.
That defendant’s negligence and drunk, fatigued driving caused the crash and plaintiff's injuries.
The defense contended that plaintiff was partly to blame for the crash, asserting that plaintiff was not attentive to defendant’s oncoming car and should should have known from the speed of defendant’s car that defendant would not stop for the red light. The defense further contended that plaintiff had the last chance to avoid the collision and could have made evasive maneuvers.
Injuries and Other Damages
Physical Injuries claimed by Plaintiff:
Plaintiff ruptured his C4-C5 vertebrae in the collision. His spine was severed and he was immediately paralyzed from the neck down. He sustained a laceration to his head. Additionally, plaintiff's severed spinal cord caused his head to drop forward at the scene. His windpipe became blocked from the positioning of his head, and he had difficulty breathing. A Good Samaritan, Carlos Morales, ran to plaintiff's aid. Morales held plaintiff's head up, opening his airway, until paramedics arrived.
Plaintiff was transported to Ventura County Medical Center, where he underwent emergency surgery to stabilize his spine. He stayed at VCMC for 90+ days, undergoing several more stabilization surgeries. After plaintiff was stabilized, he was transferred to Rancho Los Amigos Medical Center for several months of rehabilitation.
Plaintiff then returned home to Oxnard. Since his return, his mother and four younger siblings have cared for him 24 hours a day.
Plaintiff is unable to move his body except for his head and neck; he also has limited movement of his left forearm, but not his hand or fingers. He suffers from autonomic dysreflexia (uncontrollable spasms that cause dangerous changes in blood pressure) and frequent bladder and kidney infections.
Before the incident, plaintiff was an award-winning athlete who played baseball, football, and soccer. After he graduated from high school, he started classes at Oxnard College, but had to leave in order to go to work and support his family. He volunteered as a coach for his younger siblings’ sports teams and had been coaching his younger brother’s Little League team for several years. On the day of the crash, he was supposed to leave work early so that he could take the family to Little League opening ceremonies.
Plaintiff sought recovery for past and future loss of earnings, past and future medical expenses, including 24-hour care, and past and future pain and suffering.
Plaintiff is now 24 years old. He and his family have struggled to make ends meet in the face of his debilitating injuries and care needs. While the trial was going on, they were evicted from their Oxnard home. They are currently residing in a hotel paid for by plaintiff's attorney.
In a post-trial hearing, the Court ruled on the applicability of Proposition 213. Specifically, the Court considered whether Briones’ general damages were barred by Civil Code section 3333.4(a)(3) or whether Zink’s conviction under Vehicle Code section 23153(a) allowed Briones to recover general damages pursuant to Civil Code section 3333.4(c) even though Briones was a vehicle operator and not a vehicle owner. Briones was uninsured at the time of the accident, but following the accident, he posted a deposit of $35,000 with the DMV to comply with California’s financial responsibility laws (see Vehicle Code sections 16054.2 and 16056). The Court held that this deposit was sufficient to fulfill the financial responsibility laws and that Briones was entitled to recover general damages under Civil Code section 3333.4(c).
There was a pre-litigation demand for the limits of the defendant’s applicable insurance policies, the limits of which totaled $75,000. Nationwide Insurance did not timely tender those limits. Plaintiff’s attorney says that, as a result, the policy limits were “opened up,” meaning Nationwide is responsible for the full compensatory damages and Defendant is exposed to the punitive damages award.