Lethal Wreckage: Embattled towing company files for a name change after $20 million suit
When Lethal Wrecker's lawyer announced in a Charlottesville court on July 21 that his client didn't have the assets to pay a total of $1,100 to 21 citizens who'd been overcharged, it seemed the towing company might be nearing bankruptcy– bad news for those aggrieved towing victims.
But perhaps no one is more aggrieved by this news than Peter Weatherly, a local teacher for whom the company's name was nearly prophetic.
When informed by a reporter that the company might be trying to go out of business and change its name, the still wheelchair-bound Weatherly– whose car was crushed by a Lethal tow truck as he drove to work earlier this year on Route 250 West– boiled over in frustration with an expletive.
In a $20 million suit recently filed in Albemarle County Circuit Court, Weatherly alleges that negligence by a Lethal driver led to the January 27 multi-vehicle accident near Keswick that left him critically injured and possibly permanently disabled.
But whether Lethal will ultimately compensate him for his injuries has now been called into question because of clues that Lethal may be taking steps to become something other than Lethal Wrecker.
Reached at his parents' Charlottesville home, Weatherly, 48, recalls the accident that shattered his femur and pelvis, crushed internal organs, and tore his aorta, an injury few survive.
That winter morning at approximately 7:30am, Weatherly says, he was driving east on Route 250 from his home on Route 20 South to work at the Little Keswick School. As he neared the intersection of Route 22, a Lethal tow truck driven by Floyd Dean and traveling in the opposite direction, allegedly appeared in his lane.
"I never saw the guy," says Weatherly, who was driving a 2001 Honda Accord and who estimates that both he and the tow truck were traveling approximately 45 to 50 mph. "He rode up on top of me," Weatherly says of Dean. Rescue workers arrived within minutes to find Weatherly pinned inside the Accord.
"It took over an hour to get me out," he says.
According to the suit filed March 21, Dean was driving a 1999 F450 tow truck that "crossed into Plaintiff's lane of travel, side-swiped an eastbound dump-truck two vehicles ahead [of] Weatherly, then struck a Mustang directly in front of Weatherly, whereupon the tow truck, still proceeding with great speed, crashed into plaintiff's Honda head-on, thereby driving him with great force and violence off the roadway and into an embankment off of the eastbound lanes of travel of Route 250."
Despite his injuries, Weatherly remained conscious during the rescue effort, though his memories are vague.
"They said I was talking the whole time," he recalls. "I remember the point of impact, and the next thing I remember was looking down and my leg was all bent out of shape. I remember thinking that doesn't look good."
As he was being rushed to UVA hospital in an ambulance, Weatherly's condition worsened. The force of the head-on collision had compressed his organs, and as they settled back into place, he says, the most serious of his injuries became apparent: a ruptured aorta. Weatherly says his organs being pressed up against the body's main artery may have "kept me from bleeding out," but he began hemorrhaging, and doctors raced to save his life.
"When I got to the ER, I flatlined," he says. "They did the rib spreading and massaged my heart."
Weatherly credits UVA and its specialized trauma team. "They were able to bring in all these experts at a moment's notice," he says. "I'll be thanking them for the rest of my life."
Once his heart was beating again and the rupture was repaired, Weatherly was kept heavily sedated for two weeks. Since then, he says, he has had multiple surgeries, including a $350,000 bone graft procedure on his femur. His medical bills, he says, have topped half a million dollars and will continue to mount, particularly with future surgeries he may need, including a hip replacement.
Weatherly has insurance, but he says even the co-payments have run to thousands of dollars. The onetime hiker, runner, and baseball coach has been unable to return to work, although he hopes to go back part-time before the end of the year.
Whether he'll see any money from the case is unclear, however.
An anonymous tipster suggested that the Hook investigate Lethal's upcoming name change– from Lethal Wrecker, the caller said, to the kinder, gentler "After Five Towing." When a reporter called Lethal Wrecker and asked for "After Five Towing," a female voice at Lethal replied, "That's us– we're changing our name in a couple of weeks."
An angry George Morris, Lethal's owner, declined to answer questions about Weatherly's lawsuit, except to say, "Who's Peter Weatherly? No one's suing for $20 million. Get your facts straight." He hung up after threatening, "You're going to be facing a lawsuit."
Driver Floyd Dean did not return the Hook's calls, and Lethal's Richmond-based attorney, William Tiller, declined comment on the case or the alleged upcoming name change. One thing is clear: Lethal is fighting Weatherly's claim with a claim of its own. In a third-party suit against Clarence Taylor, owner of Taylor's Trucking, and his driver, Stewart Abel, Lethal alleges that it was actually Abel's negligence that was responsible for the accident that injured Weatherly. Abel, Taylor and his company, Lethal's suit alleges, should be responsible for any damages a court might award Weatherly.
Abel could not be reached at presstime, and there was no answer at the number listed for Taylor, who had not filed a legal response to the suit by press time. But both Weatherly and his attorney, Greg Webb, scoff at the notion of blaming Taylor or Abel. They say witnesses have testified in preliminary hearings that Dean, not Abel, was at fault in the accident.
Webb doesn't think the outcome of the reckless driving case against Dean, which will be heard September 18 in Albemarle District Court, will affect Weatherly's civil suit, which is set for trial March 12-14 of next year.
Neither Lisa Kelley, assistant city attorney for Charlottesville, nor Webb was aware of Lethal's planned name change, but both wonder how that, coupled with Lethal's recent claim of no assets, may affect Weatherly's suit. But Webb has no doubts about the impetus for the corporate name switch.
"I think it's obvious why," says Webb, who adds that people can draw their own conclusions about why Lethal might be looking for a new identity.
And as for the possibility of Lethal declaring bankruptcy, Webb offers a glum acknowledgement. "We could be prevented from obtaining any money, or getting to any of their assets above their insurance," he says.
Using bankruptcy to wiggle out of liability isn't an easy undertaking, according to Doug Little, a Charlottesville attorney who specializes in such filings. Little says there are steps Lethal could take to restructure any liability, although not to completely avoid responsibility. But because Lethal Wrecker is incorporated, Little says, Morris won't be personally liable for any damages awarded in any case. "As a general rule," says Little, "the corporate shield will protect the individuals behind it."
However, should Morris decide to declare Lethal bankrupt– something he denies planning– Webb says he'd fight. "We'd get a stay from bankruptcy court in order to proceed," he says.
The City's Kelley says she also plans to move forward with her attempts to collect from Morris on behalf of the 21 overcharged towing plaintiffs. Her plan is to keep going back to court "to see if there's any way to get that money from him," she says.
As for the disabled crash victim, Weatherly says he's primarily focused on regaining his ability to walk and getting back to the activities he most enjoys– teaching and coaching baseball. He won't predict the outcome of his case, but beyond the damages he's asking for, he has one simple wish for Lethal.
"I'd love to get them out of business," he says.
"So many times when I'd lie in the hospital bed, I'd think about being at the ball field, going over old games," says one-time baseball coach Peter Weatherly, who's "hoping to get back out there."
It took over an hour to rescue Peter Weatherly from the wreckage of his Honda Accord.
PHOTO BY WILL WALKER
Peter Weatherly's 2001 Honda after the accident.
PHOTO COURTESY PETER WEATHERLY
SIDEBAR-The accident and the lawsuit
Plaintiff: Peter Weatherly, a teacher at Little Keswick School and a longtime youth baseball coach
Defendants: Lethal Wrecker and its tow truck driver, Floyd Dean
Suit filed: March 21, 2006 in Albemarle Circuit Court
Amount sought: $20 million
Accident date: January 27, 2006
Accident location: Route 250 at the intersection of Rt. 22, near Keswick
Weatherly's injuries: Crushed femur, broken pelvis, ruptured aorta
Surgeries: Five, including "rib spreading" to repair his aorta and to manually massage his heart, which stopped beating; "bone grafting" to patch a two-inch gap in his femur
Medical bills: $500,000 and rising
Time since work: Eight months
PHOTO BY JEN FARIELLO