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Brett Schreiber · Ibiere Seck

Neely vs Caltrans - $16.4M Tree Fall Verdict - Brett Schreiber and Ibiere Seck

TLU Icon May 25, 2022 5:00 PM||TLU n Demand

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Our plaintiff was a 75 year old biker granny riding her Harley Davison motorcycle northbound on a rural two lane road in north San Diego county when suddenly a several thousand pound tree limb landed on top of her, bursting her thoracic spine and rendering her a paraplegic. She also suffered a femur fracture, tib/fib fracture, and a brain bleed/mTBI.

Caltrans had a natural condition immunity defense and claimed it had no notice that this particular tree would break on this particular day and disputed liability from the start. Case was preference set and six months of depositions were completed in six weeks. Two weeks before for trial Caltrans fell on their sword and stipulated to liability. For anyone who has litigated or tried a dangerous condition case you know that a governmental entity stipulating to liability and causation is unheard of. At that point, trial became all about damages. Earlier this year Caltrans sent an offer to settle for 6.5M. After the liability stipulation they raised their offer to $10M. Our client had the courage to turn down what is – by any objective measure – a large pile of cash. She wanted to 15M to settle the case and we communicated to Caltrans that was our bottom line. They never made us another offer and told us to go get it. So we did. Total verdict of 16,420,725 came down last Thursday.

Teachable moments:

A damage only trial without causation being meaningfully disputed is hard. Even in a stipulated car crash the defendant usually takes stupid positions on causation or damages that gives you some reason to shine a light on their conduct or the unreasonableness of their defenses. We had none of that. Caltrans basically put on a competing damage case.

Caltrans defense lawyer gave one of the most sincere apologies I have ever seen by a defense lawyer in opening statement in any case. It was compelling. A wise old trial lawyer once said, “the most dangerous adversary you can have in a civil jury trial is a young defense lawyer who actually believes what they’re saying”. We had that here and had to adjust our trial presentation accordingly.

Overcoming “tax payer syndrome” and encouraging jurors to award you tens of millions of dollars that they know – on one level or another – they’ll be paying for.

Motivating jurors to award fair compensation to a 77 year old woman who had a life expectancy of 8 to 11 years (depending upon whose expert you wanted to believe) How to grind your dangerous condition liability case to the point where the government entity gives up and stipulates (and whether you actually want them to do so!)