This was an important case about highway safety. Less than two weeks before trial, the case settled for forty million dollars.
Guardrail exists along the highway to protect the traveling public. The most important purpose of guardrail is to protect drivers by preventing cars from encountering a hazard and redirecting them back into the roadway.
In Georgia, the Georgia Department of Transportation (“GDOT”) and its subcontractors are responsible for identifying damaged guardrail and ensuring that it’s repaired as quickly as possible. In our case, GDOT and two of its subcontractors failed to timely identify and repair damaged guardrail. As a result, our clients’ lives were turned upside-down.
When the car in which our client was a passenger struck a stretch of guardrail that had been nonfunctional for at least ten months, the guardrail failed to keep them from leaving the roadway. Instead, the guardrail vaulted the car into a concrete pole, killing Catherine Holloway* and severely injuring her aunt, Kelley Phillips.
Butler Kahn represented Catherine’s family and Nick Protentis and Pete Law of Protentis Law and Law & Moran, respectively, represented Kelley and her husband Hal in their lawsuits against GDOT, Martin Robbins Fence Company (“Martin Robbins”) and Arcadis U.S., Inc. (“Arcadis”). The cases settled for $40,000,000, collectively. $20,500,000 went to our firm’s clients and $19,500,000 went to Kelley and her husband. (The difference is because the Georgia Tort Claims Act allows for higher caps on liability in wrongful death cases – in all other respects, the co-plaintiffs divided settlement proceeds evenly.)
Here’s how the settlement happened.
How the Guardrail Accident Happened
On the night of the guardrail accident, Kelly and Catherine were driving southbound on I-85 in Atlanta, Georgia. As they rounded a curve, their car lost control, spun around, and collided into a guardrail. Unfortunately for Kelly and Catherine, the guardrail they struck was very damaged and had been designated as “nonfunctional” by GDOT. A photo of the guardrail as it existed on the evening of the collision is below.
Because the guardrail was nonfunctional, it failed to keep the car in the roadway. Instead, the guardrail tripped the car, causing the car to ramp over the guardrail toward a concrete camera pole that stood close behind the guardrail.
Our client, Catherine, was the front seat passenger in the car. Her side of the car slammed into the concrete pole. The car bent around the pole, and the pole ripped through the passenger area. Catherine was killed. Kelly suffered a permanent, catastrophic brain injury. A post-collision photograph of the car is below.
We’ll never know exactly what caused Kelly to lose control of her car. Kelly has no memory of the collision and Catherine was not able to share her story because she was killed. But the expert witnesses for Plaintiffs and GDOT agreed that if the guardrail had been functional, Catherine and Kelly would have both likely walked away from the collision with minor injuries, if any.
Responsibility for Maintaining the Guardrail
In Georgia, GDOT is responsible for maintaining the interstate highways, which includes the guardrail. To help fulfill its responsibility for maintaining the guardrail within Atlanta, GDOT hired two subcontractors – Arcadis and Martin Robbins. Through contracts between GDOT and its subcontractors, we were able to show that Arcadis was responsible for locating and reporting damaged guardrail to GDOT and Martin Robbins, and Martin Robbins was required to repair the damaged guardrail.
Witnesses testified that, to locate damaged guardrail, Arcadis and GDOT had employees who drove along the highways looking for damaged guardrail several times each week. They were supposed to report the damaged guardrail on a daily basis. They were also responsible for designating the damaged guardrail as “functional” or “nonfunctional.” Guardrail would be classified as “nonfunctional” if three or more posts were broken, bent, or separated.
For guardrail designated as nonfunctional, Martin Robbins was required to repair it within twenty-one days from Arcadis or GDOT reporting it.
The Guardrail was Nonfunctional for at least Ten Months
Arcadis, Martin Robbins, and GDOT should have identified and repaired the subject guardrail long before the wreck. The wreck happened on June 3, 2018. But the guardrail at issue had been nonfunctional since at least August 2017 – ten months before the wreck.
We were able to prove that the guardrail had been nonfunctional using historical Google Street View images. Specifically, we were able to pull photographs of the guardrail from August 2017, September 2017, and January 2018. In each of the photographs, there were at least three bent, broken, or separated posts, proving that the guardrail was nonfunctional.
We showed these Google Street View images to witnesses from GDOT, Arcadis, and Martin Robbins, each of whom admitted that the guardrail was nonfunctional as far back as the pictures went. One employee from Arcadis – who drove past the guardrail multiple times without reporting it – even admitted that it was dangerous:
The Google Street View images were obviously bad for the defendants. Those images showed that none of the defendants adequately performed their duties for the better part of a year. Naturally, the defendants did everything they could to exclude the Google Maps images. However, we were able to successfully argue that the Court should take judicial notice of the Google Street View images since they come from a source so reliable that the accuracy of the images could not reasonably be questioned.
Denial of Responsibility
Defendants all denied responsibility – despite admitting that the guardrail had been nonfunctional for at least ten months. Martin Robbins, the subcontractor responsible for repairing damaged guardrail, even admitted that it knew that the subject guardrail was nonfunction as of April 20, 2018, but that it did not repair it until June 4, 2018. In other words, even though its contract with GDOT required it to repair “non-functional” guardrail such as this within twenty-one days, it took Martin Robbins forty-five days from learning about the damage to this guardrail to get the repair done. Unfortunately, that was too late for our clients – the fatal collision occurred on the forty-fourth day.
Martin Robbins still refused to take any responsibility.
Instead, Martin Robbins claimed that it was too busy, and even sued GDOT for allegedly breaching its contract with Martin Robbins for giving it too much work. Specifically, Martin Robbins claimed that there was a spike in repair requests in the Spring of 2018 that made it impossible to keep up with repairs. We were able to put that “defense” to rest by pointing to letters from years before showing that, even before the alleged spike in repair requests, Martin Robbins wasn’t making its repairs on time. We also proved that during the time in which Martin Robbins claimed to be overwhelmed with repair requests, Martin Robbins continued bidding on additional work from GDOT.
Proving Fault for the Collision
As the plaintiffs, we had the burden of proving that a functional guardrail would have prevented Catherine’s death and Kelly’s permanent, catastrophic brain injury. To meet that burden, we relied on expert testimony and another substantially similar collision into the same guardrail.
One of the most important aspects in any car accident case is showing what happened. This can be particularly challenging when there are no witnesses or video footage showing the wreck. To figure out what happened in this case, we worked with a collision reconstruction expert.
A reconstruction expert can go to the scene of a collision, measure skid marks, evaluate debris patterns, interpret ‘black box’ data, assess paint transfers and crush damage, and then – if everything goes right – tell you how a collision happened. In our case, our collision reconstruction expert was able to work with an animation company to create an animated depiction of his opinions. The first part of the animation illustrated the expert’s opinion as to how the wreck happened. The second part of the animation illustrated the expert’s opinion as to what would have happened with functional guardrail.
The final result was compelling. Watch for yourself below.
The defendants all challenged the animation, which an emphasis on the “alternate scenario” portion of the animation. They argued that it was too speculative and that it would be unfair to show it to the jury. The Court disagreed in an order denying their motion to exclude the animation.
Substantially Similar Collision
Through our investigative efforts, we were able to track down another individual who had been involved in a collision at the same stretch of guardrail. In that collision, a young man was rounding the same curve on I-85 on a rainy night, when he lost control of his vehicle. He spun and struck the guardrail. However, because the guardrail was not completely flattened, as seen above, his vehicle was redirected into the roadway, and he came to a stop in a grassy median. Notably, the young man had no injuries.
This substantially similar collision was the best evidence for showing how a guardrail should function. Of course, the defense wanted to keep us from showing this evidence to the jury. Each of the defendants filed motions to exclude any reference to this collision. However, the Court sided with us, and found that because the collision was “substantially similar” to ours, we were allowed to show his testimony to the jury.
Settlement of the Guardrail Accident Case
Our cases were specially set for two separate trials. In other words, Martin Robbins, Arcadis, and GDOT were exposed not only to one verdict and judgment, but two. We kept building our cases for trial and about two weeks before the first trial was set to begin, the defendants’ insurers decided to avoid the risk. They offered a total of $40,000,000 to settle both cases.
There is no amount of money in the world that could make up for what happened to Catherine or Kelley. All that can be done now is to pick up the pieces as best we can. The money helps. With the funds from this settlement, Catherine’s two young children will have the financial protect that their mother won’t be able to provide to them. Kelly and her husband will have the money to fund her extensive medical care for the rest of her life.
For questions or comment, please contact Butler Kahn today to get help at 678-940-1444.
*This name and most others in this writeup have been changed for privacy.