Aug. 2, 2012 06:41 PM
Case involves a pregnant woman left paralyzed and brain damaged when ambulance crashed into a sugar cane truck.

[Editor's Note: This story has been altered to include a statement from Acadian. The story initially indicated that Acadian did not respond to a request for comment. An email seeking comment never reached Acadian because we used an incorrect address.]

In 2010, then seven-months pregnant, Whitley Lacey of Plaquemine phoned Acadian Ambulance when she began having stomach pains. Then 21 years old and the mother of a small child, Whitley Lacey would never be the same.

The driver of the ambulance, Michael Averrette, upon realizing he had not logged into his GPS driver-monitoring device, according to plaintiff attorney William Gee, reached in his pocket to get the keys and dropped them on the floorboard. "[He] took his eyes off the road and crashed into the back of a sugar cane truck," says Gee, who represents Whitley's family. The accident left Whitley a triplegic and brain damaged; her baby was delivered by C-section while Whitley was in a coma. To this day, Whitley remains hospitalized, is bound to a wheelchair for life and will need 24-hour care for the rest of her life, Gee says.

Her mother, Peggy Ross, sued on behalf of her daughter and grandchildren. On Wednesday, an Iberville Parish jury handed down a $117 million award against Acadian Ambulance, all for compensatory damages. "The award was almost what we were asking the jury [for]," Gee says.

The largest amount, $35 million, is for Whitley's future medical and life care expenses. The jury also awarded her $20 million for future physical pain and suffering and mental anguish and $20 million for future loss of enjoyment of life. Another $15 million is for past physical pain and suffering and mental anguish. Her two daughters, Aaliyaha and Z'kyriah Lacey, were each awarded $2.5 million for loss of consortium.

"As a result of this violent and devastating collision, Whitley will never be the same," Gee says.

Acadian's general counsel, Allyson Pharr, says the company will appeal. She released the following statement to The Independent today:

This was a horrible tragedy and our hearts and prayers remain with Ms. Lacey and her family. While it is extremely difficult to put a value on a case such as this or ponder the fairness of an award amount, we do hope that the damage amount ultimately awarded will be used to provide Ms. Lacey with quality care and ensure that her children will not forego any opportunities that they may otherwise have had were it not for the injuries their mother sustained in this accident.

 Acadian's ambulances are driven over 26 million miles annually. We take driving safety very seriously. Among other daily measures, our employees undergo extensive initial driver training and annual refresher training. We equip our units with GPS devices and accelerometers that measure driving behavior and offer audible feedback to our crews. Unfortunately, even despite all of these proactive safety measures, accidents do occur. In addition to fully investigating and taking any remedial and/or educational and training steps to address any behaviors that may contribute to these situations, we also stand and are accountable, taking full responsibility to the extent our actions or those of our employees contribute to the damages sustained by persons such as Ms. Lacey.

It is more difficult to get compensatory damages reduced, says Lafayette attorney Richard Broussard, who was not involved in the case. "You don't have that enhanced scrutiny that you have with punitive damages. I would say that without researching several of the general damage awards, which is non-economic awards, several of those are well outside of what has been awarded in the past for similar tragedies." Those are the ones more likely to be addressed on appeal, adds Broussard, who has almost four decades of experience representing plaintiffs in personal injury cases. Non-economic damages include past and future physical pain and suffering, past and future loss of enjoyment of life, scarring and disfigurement, and loss of consortium.

Each case, however, is different, Broussard maintains. "There may have been something about what these kids are going through or what this lady is going through that is so far outside the range of normal that it's justified to have a much higher than normal award," he suggests.

"Any reader is likely to gasp at the size of the award, but until you personally see what someone goes through with this kind of injury, you can't appreciate how normal people would want to compensate the injury. It's easy to say, Wow, the jury really put out some money here,' but if you're sitting where they sat and watched the evidence come through you can probably understand better how they reached this award."