Estate of Mary G. vs. Cooper/Ports America, LLC et al.
Case Number: 2019-CP-10-1949
Joye Law Firm has reached a $5 million settlement for the family of a Charleston woman struck and killed by a Navy base worker who was driving an unsafe shipyard vehicle.
In the early morning hours of March 20, 2018, a port worker was operating a small industrial power truck, known as a “yard dog” and was pulling a trailer. Yard dogs are vehicles used to move shipping containers. It is illegal to drive them on the public roads.
The yard dogs were stored in a parking lot near the base’s checkpoint. The yard dog selected on March 20 had defective headlights that were not working at the time of the crash. Even so, the worker decided to drive it in the dark, while it was pouring down rain. He made an unsafe and illegal U-turn and ran over Mary. She died a painful death at the scene.
“This is what happens when you have a company that doesn’t properly maintain their vehicles or use safe drivers,” said our Joye Law Firm attorney, who represented Mary’s estate. “Once he realized the lights weren’t working, he could have picked another yard dog with working lights. And Mary’s senseless death would not have happened.”
The settlement helps provide closure to Bringardner’s client, Mary’s sister, who is disabled and unable to work. She had lived with Mary for 20 years.
“Mary took care of her sister financially and was her best friend,” Bringardner said. “The loss, given her situation, was devastating. Thankfully, because of this settlement, she is going to be taken care of for the rest of her life. That was the goal.”
Facts of the Incident
Mary, a resident of Charleston, was a longtime custodian at the Naval Weapons Station. Mary worked for Goodwill, which had a contract to provide cleaning services at the Navy base. Mary had worked at her job for 30 years. She was considered by her fellow workers to be the chief custodian.
Mary did not own transportation. To get to work, Mary would walk, take a bus, or get a ride from a friend.
The tragic collision that took Mary’s life occurred on March 20, 2018. The morning was dark and rainy when Mary arrived at the base. As was her normal routine, Mary walked to an area near the naval base’s checkpoint. She planned to wait on a van that would take her and other workers into the base.
A worker employed by Cooper/Ports America, LLC was operating a vehicle with defective headlights. While other vehicles were available in the staging area, this worker did not switch vehicles. Instead, he began operating the yard dog in the dark without headlights.
He made a rapid and sharp U-turn to his left toward the base. He did not see Mary and struck her with his yard dog and trailer.
Mary laid on the ground, fatally injured. Bystanders rushed to help and attempted to save her life. Mary was alive for a period of time before she became non-responsive. She died at the scene.
Lights Not Working: 3 Defendants
An investigation of the fatal collision focused on the yard dog’s defective headlights. It was alleged that three parties shared liability for Mary’s tragic death – the truck driver and two companies that operated at the base: Tico and Cooper/Ports America.
- The yard dog operator, made a careless decision that proved to have fatal consequences. Once he “realized the lights weren’t working, he could have just picked another yard dog, and this wouldn’t have happened,” Bringardner said.
- TICO had a clear duty to maintain the yard dog in a safe operating condition. Documents received after Mary’s death showed that mechanical problems routinely occurred in the yard dogs. TICO was likely on notice of the problem before the fatal crash but failed to act.
- Cooper/Ports America also had a duty to inspect and maintain the yard dog. The company should not have provided the driver with a vehicle that did not have working headlights.
Expert Witnesses / Comparative Fault
Expert witnesses were prepared to testify as to the negligence of the defendants for not maintaining the yard dog and for operating it with no headlights. One expert found that statutory and regulatory violations may have been committed by all three defendants, and that those violations likely contributed to the fatal accident. Another expert witness was prepared to testify that Mary was visible even without the headlights, and that the yard dog operator should have seen her.
Witnesses indicated that yard dog operators often drove in a careless manner in the area where Mary was struck.
Mary’s sister filed a lawsuit against the defendants. As the case progressed, the corporate defendants attempted to place partial blame on Mary for the fatal collision. They said there were no pedestrian signs in the area. An investigator of the accident noted that Mary was “walking with traffic” and not “against” it as pedestrians are instructed to do.
The defendants’ comparative fault arguments were rejected by Bringardner.
“There is no wrong way to walk in the parking area where she was hit,” Bringardner said. “People are allowed to walk in parking lots. Mary had the complete right-of-way to walk to work in the area where she was located when she was hit by the yard dog. Unless she got a ride from a base employee, Mary had to walk through this area to wait on a van to be taken through the check point to work inside the base. This was her routine for over 30 years.”
Mary did not earn much money working as an employee at Goodwill. However, Bringardner argued Mary’s income should not be seen as the primary factor when placing a value on her life. Bringardner interviewed Mary’s close friends as well as other workers at the base. Those interviews demonstrated that Mary was beloved by her fellow workers.
“Mary was a wonderful woman who was loved and cared for by all who knew her,” Bringardner said. “I wanted the insurance carriers not to evaluate this case and the loss of human life by the income Mary earned, but instead by the type of person Mary was and what she meant to the people close to her.”
Ready for Trial
If the case had gone to trial, several witnesses said they would testify about the lack of safety and overall poor safety culture of the corporate defendants. The estate was prepared to seek damages for Mary’s pain and suffering and her wrongful death. The estate was also prepared to seek punitive damages because of the defendants’ egregious conduct in not having headlights and other serious statutory violations.
Bringardner said his client was seeking a substantial, multi-million-dollar award from a jury. To show he could secure a verdict of that size, Bringardner provided a track record of million-dollar verdicts and settlements he had obtained, either by himself or working with other attorneys. Those recoveries included recent verdicts of $6 million, $11.8 million and $17 million.
Presented with the totality of evidence obtained by Mary’s estate, and in light of Court closures due to Covid-19, the defendants decided to avoid a trial and agreed to the $5 million settlement.
“It certainly has given peace of mind to Mary’s sister to know that she is going to be fine financially for the rest of her life and be able to take care of herself with the way things worked out,” Bringardner said. “You can never replace a sister and a best friend who was also a financial provider, confidant and protector. To have that taken away is tough. But it felt really good to reach a settlement for her that we thought was fair and commensurate with the loss that she felt.”
After Mary’s death, the defendants completely changed the traffic pattern at the base and now require certain trucks to use a different entrance.