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The verdict's in: Chain reaction accident leads to $17M judgement

A look at some of the legal decisions of interest to the insurance industry

A Ph.D. student claims he requires a $5 million dental plan after he was hit in a chain-reaction car crash.
A Ph.D. student claims he requires a $5 million dental plan after he was hit in a chain-reaction car crash.

Verdict: $17,393,479.87.

Venue: San Diego County, Calif.

Demand: $7,310,000.

Offer: $5 million (during jury deliberations).

Plaintiff: Russell Sheaffer.

Defendants: NuCO2, Thomas J. Mose.

Insurer: American International Group (excess) for NuCO2.

Russell Sheaffer, 24, was a Ph.D. student at Indiana State University who was working in California on a documentary in November 2012. While driving his Toyota Solara on southbound Interstate 15 in Escondido, he stopped behind two other vehicles. A 35,000-pound Freightliner tanker driven by Thomas Mose, and owned by his employer, NuCO2, was traveling at high speeds and crashed into the rear of five vehicles, causing a chain-reaction accident.

Sheaffer's vehicle was struck from behind, causing his driver's seat to break before his car was propelled into the sport utility vehicle in front of him. He suffered multiple head injuries and fractures to his face and jaw in addition to a concussion. He was hospitalized for three days after undergoing surgery and sustained what was identified as a mild complex/moderate traumatic brain injury. His jaw was wired shut for eight weeks and underwent subsequent surgeries for pain sustained from his injuries.

Sheaffer alleged that Mose was negligent, and that he and NuCO2 were liable for Sheaffer's injuries. The defendants later admitted liability.

After the accident, Sheaffer continued his Ph.D. program, maintained a nearly 4.0 grade point average, and completed the program. In addition, he received a fellowship and was named one of 110 film students to watch by Variety magazine just two weeks before the trial in June 2015. He attended film festivals around the globe, taught graduate and undergraduate classes, got married and never missed a day of classes following the accident.

During the trial he said that he struggled to obtain his Ph.D., and that most of the accolades he received were for accomplishments completed before the accident. He claimed that all of his activities were undertaken despite being in constant pain and requiring continued care and future surgeries. His dentist presented a $5 million treatment and life-care plan during the trial.

Defense counsel presented experts who disputed the extent of Sheaffer's injuries and contended he only suffered a concussion, which should have healed in about three months. They also disputed his contention that he suffered from a permanent traumatic brain injury, instead saying that he suffered from a disorder that caused him to believe he was still suffering from cognitive issues. In addition, despite the fact that Sheaffer's dentist had presented a life-care plan totaling $5 million, during depositions he testified that Sheaffer did not need any additional surgery and that his medical costs only totaled $30,000. Counsel further asserted that the injuries did not impact Sheaffer's earning ability or his life.

The jury awarded Sheaffer damages totaling $17,393,479.87. Post-trial the parties agreed to settle for a confidential amount.

Related: The verdict's in: Women allege negligence for injuries from truck crash

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