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Mora vs. State Farm Mutual Automobile Insurance Company

Nicolas Mora was a 10-year-old rear seat passenger in a vehicle driven by Gila Buzzetta, as she approached an intersection controlled by a stop sign in her direction of travel. Lisa Bowers was approaching the intersection from the south and was traveling the posted speed limit of 45 mph. Both defendant Bowers and another driver approaching from the north, Biggers, testified that they saw Buzzetta going fast as she approached the stop sign. Biggers took his foot off the accelerator, continued to watch Buzzetta, and then applied his brakes when he saw her run the stop sign. Bowers testified she looked away and never saw the Buzzetta vehicle until they collided. The Buzzetta vehicle had nearly cleared Bowers’ lane of travel when struck by Bowers, who was still traveling 45mph and never applied her brakes.

Nicolas sustained a severe traumatic brain injury in the collision and was hospitalized for several months following the collision. His past medical bills were in excess of $500,000. He is unable to walk or talk, and he is completely and permanently disabled. Nicolas, now 12, requires 24-hour care and will need attendant care for the rest of his life according to his pediatric neurologist, who also testified that it is likely that Nicolas is aware of his surroundings and that he feels the painful nature of his spasticity. His future medical care was estimated to cost $8-10 Million.

Date of Verdict: April 26, 2006

Length of trial: 5 days (bifurcated)

Length of deliberations: Less than 1 hour each on liability and damages phases

Jury poll: Unanimous

Plaintiff’s name, age and occupation: Nicolas Mora was 10 years old at the time of the collision.

Defendants’ names: Lisa Anne Thomas-Bowers and Gila Miranda Buzzetta

Plaintiff’s experts: Ray Cox, P.E., Charlotte, NC, accident reconstruction; Vickie Pennington, MA, OTR/L, CCM, Charlotte, NC, rehabilitation management and life care planning; J. Finley Lee, Ph.D., Chapel Hill, NC, economics.

Defendants’ experts: None

Plaintiff’s contentions: Plaintiff alleged that the negligence of both drivers contributed to the collision. Buzzetta ran the stop sign, failed to yield the right-of-way and failed to see the Bowers vehicle. Bowers failed to keep a proper lookout, failed to take reasonable steps to avoid the collision, and was traveling too fast for conditions.

Defense position: Bowers claimed the collision was entirely the fault of Buzzetta for running the stop sign. Buzzetta denied running the stop sign, and claimed that since she had nearly cleared Bowers’ lane of traffic, it was Bowers who failed to keep a proper lookout and yield the right-of-way. It was also argued that this was an unavoidable accident.

On damages, both defendants argued that Nicolas did not need the level of care suggested by the life care plan but offered no evidence on damages.

Unusual legal issues or interesting trial techniques or happenings:

The parties consented to a bifurcated trial. During liability phase the only defense witness to take the stand was defendant Buzzetta. During her testimony she claimed that the sight lines between her vehicle and Bowers’ were not clear. Following this testimony at the end of the first week of trial, plaintiff’s had an engineer go to the scene to document on video the views Bowers and Buzzetta would have had of each other as they approached the intersection on the night of the wreck, and called him to testify in rebuttal the following morning. After less than an hour of deliberation, the jury returned a verdict finding both drivers responsible for causing the collision.

In the damages phase of the trial Nicolas’ pediatric neurologist, a life care planner, an economist and his father all testified. The defense offered no proof in this part of the trial. The jury deliberated again for less than an hour before returning a verdict for $10,000,000.

During pre-trial mediation Bowers’ insurance carrier, State Farm, refused to make an offer and declined an offer by the Plaintiff for its policy limits of $100,000. The carrier promised Bowers it would pay any excess verdict.

Post trial disposition: Buzzetta’s insurance carrier paid its policy limits, plus, shortly after the verdict. Bowers filed an appeal, and State Farm paid the $100,000 policy limits into the court but did not post an appeal bond. Mora then sued State Farm directly in a separate action for, among other things, breach of its promise to Bowers to pay the entire verdict of which Mora was an intended beneficiary.

Before filing its answer to the complaint in the second lawsuit, State Farm paid an additional $11 Million to the Plaintiff to resolve all claims between the parties.


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