A 32-year-old man who was rendered a quadriplegic following a single-car accident, was awarded a net $35 million Monday afternoon by a Marion County jury which is believed to be among the largest verdicts for a personal injury claim in Indianapolis.
Gregory Smith was a passenger in the truck he owned when Nolan Clayton, who was driving, crashed the vehicle into a tree near 10th Street and North White River Parkway during the early morning hours in February 2016. He sustained severe injuries and is now a quadriplegic, relying on his parents as his primary caretakers.
Smith’s lead counsel, Ann Marie Waldron of Waldron Law, said the case reminded her of why she became an attorney. She is hopeful the verdict will “make insurance companies sit up and take notice and be a little more reasonable in their settlements.”
The jury deliberated about three hours after a six-day trial before Judge James Osborn in Marion Superior Court 14. Jurors concluded Smith shared some of the fault for the crash but Clayton was found to be 60 percent at fault, so the actual amount awarded is $21 million.
The case is Gregory Smith v. Nolan Clayton, 49D14-1606-CT-021431. Waldron along with Michael Simmons, senior partner at Hume Smith Geddes Green & Simmons LLP, and Robert P. Thomas represented Smith.
Simmons said the verdict reflects a change in juror attitudes. The debate over tort reform convinced the public that most litigation is unnecessary but now when jurors see individuals who are coping with life-changing injuries, they will rule for the plaintiff.
“I think in Marion County…juries are getting more realistic about some of the awards,” he said.
The $21 million will cover only Smith’s day to day care, Waldron said. It will not provide for special quality-of-life things like being able to take his daughter on a vacation.
Even so, Waldron said, the verdict validates the pain and suffering that Smith has endured since the accident. He was able to attend two days of the trial and was in the courtroom when the verdict was read.
Clayton was represented at trial by William Kelley of Kelley Law Offices LLC in Bloomington. The defendant had been represented by Mark Metzger and Randall Degan but both withdrew before the trial. Degan declined to comment and neither Metzger nor Kelley returned a call seeking comment.
Whether Smith will receive any of the jury award depends on a related case, Progressive Insurance Co. v. Gregory Smith, Nolan Clayton, Erie Insurance Group, et al., 49D02-1701-PL-002865. That case is awaiting a judgement from Marion Superior Judge Timothy Oakes and, Simmons said, is sure to be appealed.
The central question is whether Progressive has a duty to pay the jury award. Progressive, which insured Smith and his vehicle, and the defendants are arguing over the insurance contract and if it does cover Smith since he was a passenger, not the driver, in his own truck. The defense is asserting even if the family exclusion provision applies, then Progressive would still have to pay under the uninsured motorist provision.
Simmons said Smith and Clayton were both intoxicated at the time of the accident. The Stacked Pickle, the bar where they had been drinking, called a cab to take them home but, Simmons said, as their ride was pulling into the parking lot, Smith and Clayton decided to drive themselves.
By trying to provide a cab for the men, the bar was able to limit its liability, Simmons said. The jury found the establishment was only 5 percent at fault for the accident.
Smith’s attorneys focused their case on emphasizing to the jury what he has to go through every day since he has become completely paralyzed. They put medical experts on the stand, one of whom explained most quadriplegics lose about 20 years off their lifespan, and they used a “day-in-the-life” video to actually show the jurors how Smith lives today.
A videographer followed Smith around for a day, filming his daily routine. Some of the footage was then used at trial to punctuate his mother’s testimony about such tasks as using a lift to move Smith from his hospital bed to his wheelchair.
Simmons said the video was painful to watch but was much more effective then trying to explain Smith’s suffering.
Video also played a role in helping police identify what happened during the accident. According to Simmons, Clayton initially denied he was behind the wheel but video from a nearby security camera captured him getting out of the driver’s side of the truck.
As a result, Clayton was criminal charged. He pled guilty to causing serious injury while operating a motor vehicle intoxicated and was sentenced to 730 days in community corrections with 370 days suspended and the remaining 360 days spent in home detention.
The accident was a tragedy for both Smith and Clayton, Simmons said. He hopes the public learns from the case by calling for a ride home. “Just don’t drink and drive,” Simmons said.