By City News Service
In what could be one of the largest verdicts of its kind, a Riverside girl who survived a 2009 fiery crash that killed three members of her family, who were riding in an SUV that crashed into the back of a big rig in Sunland, was Friday awarded $150.75 million.
A Los Angeles Superior Court jury deliberated for about 3 1/2 days before finding in favor of 13-year-old Kylie Asam in a wrongful death lawsuit brought on her behalf in October 2011 by her paternal grandfather, David Asam.
The driver, Rudolph Ortiz, and his employer, Watsonville-based Bhandal Bros. Trucking Inc. were found jointly liable.
Kylie was 9 years old when she and one of her brothers, 11-year-old Blaine, managed to climb out of a window of the family's crumpled SUV, which had struck the rear of the big rig parked along the shoulder of the Foothill (210) Freeway in the early morning darkness.
Blaine died in June. The $150.75 million verdict includes $8.75 million the jury awarded to the boy for his damages from the time of the accident until his death. That money will pass to Kylie as her brother's successor-in- interest, but all of the award will be placed in a trust until she is 18, according to her lawyer, Brian Brandt.
Brandt praised the verdict and said he has never heard of a larger award given in such a case. He had recommended during final arguments that the jury award about $130 million.
"I'm glad the jury saw through the smokescreens put up by the defense and that justice was served to Kylie and her family," Brandt said.
Kylie and Ortiz were not present for the verdict. Brandt said he had not yet had time to inform his young client of the verdict.
Defense attorney Raymond McElfish declined to comment.
Brandt said Ortiz parked the truck on the right shoulder to sleep, despite written warnings that stopping there was only allowed in emergencies.
"He violated simple highway rules and as a result three members of the community are dead," Brandt said.
McElfish denied Ortiz stopped to sleep. The driver testified he had taken a brake to urinate and because he had a severe headache.
McElfish suggested during his closing argument that no damages be rewarded, saying the plaintiffs' attorneys had not met their burden of proof. He said the evidence shows the SUV's driver, Michael Asam, fell asleep at the wheel, and argued that Ortiz violated no law because he was parked on the dirt to the right of the shoulder.
Michael Asam, 41, his 40-year-old wife, Shannon, and their 14-year-old son, Brennen, were killed about 5 a.m. on Nov. 22, 2009, when their 2007 GMC Yukon struck the rear of the big rig. Ortiz parked his truck on the same shoulder Asam tried to reach after he struck debris on the freeway and tried to stop.
Asam never saw Ortiz's truck in the darkness, according to the plaintiffs' attorneys.
According to Brandt, Ortiz's trailer lights and his emergency flashers were off when the impact occurred. He also said Ortiz never put out his emergency reflectors. All of the actions were in violation of existing laws governing big rigs, Brandt said.
Although California Highway Patrol officers did not find any debris on the road despite shutting down the freeway and walking across the concrete, Brandt said a dent in the rim of one of the SUV's tires was proof that Asam hit something while driving that forced him to try and stop.
Ortiz could have left the freeway at numerous locations to sleep and was seconds away from the Sunland Boulevard exit, Brandt said. Instead, Kylie and Blaine were helpless as their family members perished before them, Brandt said.
McElfish countered that the dent in the rim was probably caused by the weight of the big rig on top of the SUV. He also maintained that Ortiz's primary reason for stopping was to take medication for a severe headache, which constituted an emergency.
He said the collision happened so soon after Ortiz stopped that he never would have had time to put out his emergency reflectors.
McElfish said the inability of the plaintiff's lawyers to come up with proof that there was debris on the road, plus the lack of other evidence, supported the defense theory that Asam was not awake when the SUV hit the big rig at about 40 mph.
The jury foreman, 39-year-old Douglas Decauwer of Pasadena, said he found the most compelling evidence to be the expert testimony in the case, with an edge going to the plaintiffs' witnesses. Although the panelists found Michael Asam also was negligent, they struggled before determining his actions were not a substantial factor in causing his family's deaths and that therefore the entire damages should be assessed against the defendants, Decauwer said.
The Asams were headed to Oregon to visit the children's grandparents for Thanksgiving.
Shannon Asam was a longtime legal assistant and her husband worked as a Riverside Public Utilities power line technician.
Kylie now lives with an aunt.