Kylie Asam, 9, and her family were traveling from California to Oregon to visit relatives for Thanksgiving. As Kylie’s father, Michael, was driving the family’s SUV on the freeway during the early morning hours, the vehicle struck debris in the road. When he attempted to pull over, the SUV slammed into the back of a tractor trailer that was parked illegally on the right shoulder. The SUV became caught under the rig and caught fire.
Kylie and her 11-year-old brother, Blaine, managed to escape through a shattered window. Their parents, 41-year-old Michael and 40-year-old Shannon, and their 14-year-old brother, Brennen, were trapped in the vehicle. Kylie and Blaine flagged down another motorist, who tried unsuccessfully to extinguish the fire. The siblings suffered extreme emotional distress as they watched their parents and brother burn to death.
The children’s grandfather, as guardian on their behalf, sued Rudolph Ortiz, the trucker who parked on the shoulder of the road, and his employer. The plaintiffs alleged that Ortiz was negligent for parking in an area designated for emergency use only and in failing to activate his lights and emergency flashers. Suit claimed that Ortiz pulled over to sleep, that he could have exited the freeway on numerous occasions before stopping on the shoulder, and that he was only half a mile away from the next exit.
The plaintiffs did not claim economic loss.
The defendants denied that Ortiz parked illegally, arguing that he had stopped on the dirt to the right of the shoulder and that he did so to take medication for a severe headache, which constituted an emergency.
The plaintiffs countered with testimony from a motorist who had pulled over to help that he overheard Ortiz telling paramedics that he was there to sleep. Other evidence showed that it took Ortiz 10 to 15 minutes to get out of the cab after the incident.
The plaintiffs also presented evidence that Ortiz changed his story several times, first telling a police officer that he had stopped to urinate, and then, several days later, telling another officer that he had had a bad headache. An emergency room doctor who examined Ortiz for chest pains after the incident testified that he took Ortiz’s history and specifically noted in his chart, “No headache.”
Other evidence showed that after Ortiz was discharged from the emergency room, he went to the tow yard and disposed of his driver’s logs. Ortiz stated at deposition that he destroyed the logs because they had become soaked with water used to extinguish the fire. At trial, however, the tow truck operator testified that he entered the cab of the truck immediately after the incident to release the brakes and noted that it was completely dry. Photos of the truck taken by the highway patrol immediately after the incident also showed that the cab windows were rolled up.
The defense also argued that Michael Asam fell asleep at the wheel and that there was no proof the SUV struck any debris before the collision.
The plaintiffs countered that the rim of one of the SUV’s tires was dented, proving that the vehicle struck something while on the road.
While the case was pending, Blaine committed suicide. His estate was substituted as a plaintiff.
The jury awarded $150.75 million jointly against the defendants, including $112 million for Kylie’s past and future pain and suffering; $30 million for her past and future emotional distress, and $8.75 million to Blaine’s estate for the wrongful deaths of his family members while he was alive.
Counsel anticipates posttrial motions.
Citation: Asam v. Ortiz, No. PC051705 (Cal., Los Angeles Co. Super. Oct. 25, 2013).
Plaintiff counsel: Brian Brandt, Upland, Calif.; and Christopher Purcell, Santa Ana, Calif.