A judge recently declined to reduce the jury award of $26.5 million and refused to grant a new trial in a fatal road-rage crash in Oregon. The case involved two trucking companies and their drivers who were alleged to be engaged in a dangerous cat-and-mouse game that killed a 30-year-old woman in 2016.
U.S. Magistrate Judge Patricia Sullivan affirmed the federal jury’s verdict on October 11 and rejected one transportation company’s argument that counsel for the victims improperly used the “reptile theory,” a litigation strategy used by some plaintiffs’ attorneys to ask jurors to send a message to trucking companies by awarding large verdicts.
Following a two-week trial in May 2019, an Oregon jury awarded the $26.5 million against the two trucking companies and its drivers, who were involved in a fatal crash that killed Sara Allison and severely injured her husband, Matthew, of Boise, Idaho, back on June 5, 2016, near Burns, Oregon.
According to court documents, Sara Allison was driving east on U.S. 20 when she crashed head-on with a truck driven by James Decou, who drove for Smoot Enterprises, headquartered in Brigham City, Utah.
Smoot has 76 drivers and 54 power units, according to the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration’s SAFER website. FMCSA lists the company’s out-of-service rate at 36.5% compared to the national average of 20.7%.
Court records alleged that Decou and two other Smoot Brothers drivers, Peter Barnes and Cory Frew, were headed from Salt Lake City, Utah, to Eugene Oregon, when they encountered an RV driven by CDL-holder Jonathan Hogaboom, who drove for Horizon Transport, Inc. of Wakarusa, Indiana.
Prior to the crash, Decou and the two other Smoot drivers and Hogaboom had been engaged in a cat-and-mouse game for nearly 100 miles along the two-lane highway as they headed westbound on U.S. 20.
All of the commercial truck drivers were driving aggressively, cutting each other off and brake checking each other prior to the crash, court documents alleged.
Just before the crash, Decou attempted to pass the RV driven by Hogaboom in a no-passing zone.
After being alerted to the oncoming car driven by Sara Allison, Decou tried to return to his legal lane, but court filings claimed that Hogaboom sped up or slowed down and refused to allow Decou’s truck “to pass or otherwise return to the westbound lane.”
Decou and Hogaboom were in opposite lanes when they reached a blind turn.
In an effort to avoid hitting the tractor-trailer heading toward them in the wrong lane, Sara Allison swerved to the right at the same time Decou swerved, hitting the Allisons’ vehicle head-on, killing her, and severely injuring her husband, Matthew.
Following the crash, Decou pleaded guilty to second-degree manslaughter and was sentenced to six years in prison in Oregon. The other drivers were not charged.
However, prior to the jury’s verdict, Smoot Brothers reached a $900,000 secret “Mary Carter” settlement agreement with Sara Allison’s estate, which the jury wasn’t aware of when awarding damages, which left Horizon Transport on the hook for the bulk of the $26.5 million verdict.