$10.6 million: Record verdict in Rt. 53 death case
A Charlottesville jury has awarded what's believed to be Virginia's largest wrongful death award–- more than $10 million–- and seemed to send a message to the family of a woman who died when a cement-laden truck from Allied Concrete rolled and crushed her car three years and a half ago.
"It speaks to the level of tragedy the family experienced," says Bryan Slaughter, a trial lawyer who watched part of the December 7-9 proceedings. "It also says Allied's conduct is not going to be tolerated in this community."
Jessica Lester, 25, was driving to work with her husband, Isaiah Lester, on June 21, 2007, when they crossed paths with a mixer driven by Allied employee William Donald Sprouse, who chose curvy, two-lane Route 53 over Monticello Mountain to haul 36,000 pounds of cement to a bridge rebuild in Palmyra, rather than taking Interstate 64 and U.S. 15.
Trial testimony showed that Sprouse had a history of driving infractions. On the fateful day, the plaintiffs allege he was driving too fast around a curve when he lost control of the truck, which overturned on top of the Lesters' Honda.
Jessica Lester grew up on an organic farm in Nelson County where she was home-schooled. A graduate of Piedmont Virginia Community College, she was training to become a nurse coordinator for UVA neurosurgeon Greg Helm. Instead she became his patient.
The neurosurgeon testified that Lester had the worst skull fracture he'd ever seen. After eight days in intensive care, Helm was given the grim duty of informing her husband and parents that she had no realistic chance of recovery.
"She was rushed next door for organ harvesting," says plaintiff's attorney Matt Murray with Allen, Allen, Allen & Allen.
Isaiah Lester filed suit against Allied Concrete and Sprouse, who was charged with reckless driving and involuntary manslaughter. On April 22, 2008, Sprouse pleaded guilty to the manslaughter charge, and was sentenced to two years, with all but 30 days suspended. He also is forbidden from again holding a commercial driver's license.
"I was surprised [the defense] chose to try to blame someone else rather than accept responsibility," says trial observer Slaughter, noting that Sprouse, even after his involuntary manslaughter conviction, testified at the civil suit that a black car got into his lane, causing him to swerve. However, multiple witnesses, including the driver of a black pickup, testified that some of the mixer's wheels had already left the pavement as it approached the Lesters' black Honda.
Defense attorney Dave Tafuri with D.C. law firm Patton Boggs had not returned phone calls at press time.
The December 9 jury award of $10,577,000 plus interest dating from Sprouse's 2008 criminal plea includes $2.35 million for Isaiah Lester's own personal injuries, including post-traumatic stress disorder, as well as $6.23 million as Jessica's beneficiary. Jessica Lester's parents, Jeanne and Gary Scott, were each awarded $1 million.
Isaiah Lester declines to comment on the case until Charlottesville Circuit Court Judge Edward Hogshire signs the final order. So does attorney Murray, except to say, "This award speaks to the value of life. The award affirms the value of the loss to this community of Jessica Lester. She would have made a wonderful nurse."