Gaona v. Drunk Attorney-Ventura Superior Court

Plaintiff was a 19 year-old who was driving south on U. S. 101 with his girlfriend. A car driven by a young insurance defense attorney who was under the influence of alcohol crossed the center line and collided head-on with plaintiff’s vehicle, a 1965 Mustang. The steering column in this vintage automobile was never designed to collapse. As a result, the heavy impact caused the steering column to be driven into the interior of the car, badly impacting plaintiff’s face, and producing very serious facial injuries involving multiple plastic surgeries. In addition, plaintiff suffered a badly fractured arm, causing the need to place a plate and pins in the arm to secure it while it healed. The first surgery was unsuccessful, and a second surgery was necessary. A third surgery would ultimately be necessary to remove the hardware.

Fortunately for the carrier, the passenger who had very serious injuries accepted the policy limits of $100,000.00. The driver’s attorney, however, refused to accept the policy limits.

We received the case with instructions to settle it as quickly as possible. As directed, we produced the defendant driver for deposition within two weeks or so of answering the complaint, and allowed plaintiff’s attorney to inquire about the young attorney’s modest assets in order to convince plaintiff’s attorney that the “well was dry” with regard to additional financial resources.

Despite learning nothing more about the attorney’s financial condition, plaintiff’s attorney continued with the case, turning down a C.C.P., section 998 Offer for the policy limits of $100,000.00. He hoped to get punitive damages against the drunk driver, something that California law permits if the jury believes that the drunk driver intended to drive before he started drinking. Throughout the case, plaintiff’s attorney took every opportunity to remind us just how tough he would be on the client at trial, and to predict a dismal outcome for the defendant. With an intoxicated attorney as a defendant in Ventura County, his expectations were not unreasonable.

At an arbitration, plaintiff was awarded $238,000.00, which defendant de novoed. Just prior to trial, defendant offered plaintiff an additional $40,000.00 which he would obtain via a loan from his parents who would obtain a second mortgage on their home.

At trial, defendant testified that he had gone out for drinks at the end of the day with co-workers. He intended to get home from downtown Los Angeles to Long Beach on the Blue Line, and to return to the office the same way the next morning, something he did from time to time. We produced a co-worker who was with the defendant the night of the accident who corroborated the defendant’s occasional use of the Blue Line, and who mentioned that he talked him into coming with him to see his condominium as a prospective roommate. After going to Santa Monica together, the defendant then left in order to drive to Santa Barbara. On his way there, the accident happened.

The jury listened to the testimony and returned a verdict of $100,000.00 in general damages (exactly the policy limits that had been offered prior to litigation), and nothing for punitive damages, believing that the evidence was insufficient to prove that the defendant intended to drive his car that night before he started drinking.

Plaintiff’s attorney brought many employees from his firm’s office to hear the jury verdict. The gasp of disbelief that erupted from one of them when the verdict was read was particularly satisfying, given the uncivil behavior of plaintiff’s attorney throughout the case.

And the carrier and client were very happy.

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