George Harris was a passenger seated in the rear third row of a 2004 Chevy Ventura van when he was returning home from work at Union Pacific Railroad with five others in his carpool. It was July 10, 2009, — a Friday during evening rush hour — and the van was traveling southbound on the Dan Ryan Expressway (Interstate 90/94) in the local lanes just north of 63rd Street. The van came to a standstill in traffic.
At about 4:36 p.m., just before the split with the Skyway entrance, the van was in the third lane from the left. The two left lanes were for entering the Skyway entrance, 1,200 feet ahead.
The defendant Nicolas Nieves had been traveling behind the van while driving a flatbed tow truck carrying two vehicles.
When Mr. Nieves saw that the traffic had stopped in front of him in lane 3, he chose to move to the lane on his left, which would have been lane 2. He wanted to jump in front of lane 3 traffic. His plan was to re-enter lane 3 before the Skyway split.
Mr. Nieves sped up, increasing his speed to about 48 mph in order to change to lane 2 where the traffic was moving fast. As he started to move to his left into lane 2, he claimed that a “dark car” jumped from lane 3 behind him to lane 2 and then sped up beside him forcing him to change his mind about his lane change. As he straightened his truck in lane 3 he saw the stopped van in front of him and hit his brakes. He was unable to stop in time and crashed into the rear-end of the van in which Mr. Harris was riding.
The force of the impact left the Nieves tow truck embedded in the back of the van by a 3.5-foot intrusion. The third row of the van disappeared leaving Mr. Harris pinned between the hood of the tow truck and the roof of the van, severely injured and gasping for air.
Mr. Harris, 40, was taken to Christ Hospital where he was diagnosed with a cervical spine subluxation at the C-1 level of his neck, which was described by the trauma surgeon as an “internal decapitation.” He also suffered a comminuted fracture of the left fibula, a broken rib, fractured clavicle, fractured hip wing at S-1, and bilateral transverse fractures at the C-3 level of his neck.
Mr. Harris died five hours later. He was survived by his wife and two children. He was a union machinist for the Union Pacific Railroad.
At trial, it was proven that Mr. Nieves was acting in the scope of his employment and/or agency with the corporate defendant when he drove too fast for conditions, attempted an improper lane change, and failed to maintain a proper distance from the van ahead.
An accident reconstruction expert for the Harris family testified that Mr. Nieves’ speed was approximately 25 mph at the impact. Plaintiff’s attorney reported that the defendants admitted agency as to defendant United. This resulted in the dismissal of the negligent entrustment claim against United, as that claim would have enabled the plaintiff to produce evidence of Mr. Nieves’s negative driving history.
The defendants argued that Mr. Nieves’s attempted lane change was lawful, the driver of the unidentified dark car who cut him off was the sole proximate cause of the crash, and that the dark car was visible in post-occurrence scene photos.
Because of this crash, there were 9 personal injury claims, including 4 consolidated lawsuits. All the other claims and lawsuits settled prior to this trial, including a $14 million settlement with another van passenger who was rendered a T-4 paraplegic.
The attorneys for the Estate of Harris were James D. Montgomery, Jr. and John K. Kennedy. The demand before the trial was $6.9 million. At trial, counsel for plaintiff asked the jury for a verdict of $18.8 million. The offer made by the defendants before the start of the trial was reported to be $4 to $5 million.
The jury’s verdict of $7,365,000 versus all of the defendants was made up of the following damages:
$1,250,000 for past and future loss of economic support;
$165,000 for past and future loss of household services;
$450,000 for grief and sorrow for next of kin;
$4,500,000 for past and future loss of society;
$1,000,000 for survival/conscious pain and suffering.
In this case, the jury was asked two separate questions. One question was, “Was defendant Nicolas Nieves negligent in one or more of the ways claimed by the plaintiff as stated to you in these instructions?” The jury’s answer was “Yes.” The second question was: “Was the negligence of Nicolas Nieves a proximate cause of George Harris’s injuries and death?” Again, the jury’s answer was “Yes.”
Estate of George F. Harris, Jr., deceased v. United Road Towing, Inc., E&R Towing & Garage, Inc., Nicolas Nieves; 09 L 8841 (Cook County).
Kreisman Law Offices has been handling automobile and truck accident cases for more than 37 years in and around Chicago, Cook County and its surrounding areas, including Lemont, Chicago (Logan Square), Chicago (Edgebrook), Bensenville, Rolling Meadows, Palatine, Chicago (Archer Heights), Countryside, Western Springs, Burr Ridge, Palos Heights, Calumet City and Chicago (Burnside), Ill.
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