Jury Awards $15.6M in Lawsuit Between Brothers
The money will go into a trust for the victim's care
By LAURE CIOFFI
VINDICATOR PENNSYLVANIA BUREAU
Published: Saturday, March 17, 2007
NEW CASTLE, Pa. - A jury has awarded $15.6 million to a Shenango Township man who had sued his brother over an auto accident.
The verdict was handed down Thursday before Judge Tom Piccione of Common Pleas Court and is one of the largest ever in Lawrence County, said county prothonotary Helen Morgan.
Stephen Piper was severely injured in a crash Feb. 22, 2003, in a car driven by his brother, Kyle. The brothers were ages 15 and 17, respectively, at the time of the crash.
According to court papers, the brothers were traveling on the U.S. Route 422 bypass in Union Township when Kyle Piper lost control of the car on an icy patch of road. Police reports state he was going too fast for the road conditions.
The lawsuit was filed by parents Joyce and David Piper on behalf of their son, Stephen. Stephen Piper suffered a severe brain injury and is unable to communicate and is partially paralyzed, said the family's attorney Dallas Hartman of New Castle.
Will need lifelong care
Hartman said the damages awarded were high because they are meant to be used for Stephen Piper's future care. Jurors specified that $8.3 million of the damages were for future medical care. While severely injured, Stephen Piper is expected to have a normal life expectancy. He will likely outlive his parents by three decades, Hartman said.
"This young man has profound, profound injuries. What you have is a 6-foot-2-inch, 160- pound, 3- or 4-year-old," Hartman said.
Hartman said the family did not lightly decide to pursue litigation, but was essentially forced into it.
"Originally there wasn't going to be any pursuit of this except for how the insurance company handled it in the beginning. This [trial] was because of the way the insurance company handled itself," Hartman said.
Hartman said it's not uncommon to have family members sue other family members in this type of situation to get payment from the insurer.
"Under our system, your rights are the same if you are in a car accident with your husband or you are hit by a drunk driver. We have insurance companies to protect us," he said.
Hartman said insurance companies, though, often try to use a familial relationship to an injury victim's disadvantage when they go after a claim.
"The law is blind to who it is who hurts us," he said.
Not unheard of
John A. Sparks, Dean of Arts and Letters at Grove City College and a practicing attorney in Mercer County, said cases where relatives are forced to sue one another happen from time to time.
He said when small amounts are to be paid, insurers are less likely to force a lawsuit.
"With larger amounts, sometimes the insurance company insists the family show negligence on the part of the driver," he said.
Mark Dombrowski, spokesman for Erie Insurance, said company officials have not yet decided how to proceed in this case. "We are the insurance company of the defendant, but we were not named in the lawsuit," he said.
The company did provide Kyle Piper with an attorney for the lawsuit. He also retained a private attorney.
Hartman said Kyle Piper is legally responsible to pay the verdict amount to his brother, but they also hope that Erie Insurance will pay some of it, too.
Kyle Piper, who attends college, understood the reason for the lawsuit and there is no animosity in the family, Hartman said.
"It was doing the right thing for Stephen. It's often difficult, but if everyone had done the right thing on behalf of Stephen in the beginning, this would have never gone to trial," he said.
There are still multiple, ongoing lawsuits involving the family and Erie Insurance, he said.
Hartman said the money will go into a trust and be used only for Stephen Piper's care.
Hartman said Stephen Piper will continue to make small progress from his injuries, but he will likely never be able to communicate, even through sign language, and never be able to live on his own.
"They love both their sons with every ounce of their being," he said of the parents.