A jury has awarded a Shenango County man $15.6 million over an automobile accident he was in with his brother at the wheel. Judge Tom Piccione of the Common Pleas Court presided over what is one of Lawrence County's largest ever verdicts.
Stephen Piper was injured in an automobile accident on February 22nd, 2003 in a car driven by his brother, Kyle Piper. At the time of the accident, Stephen was fifteen and Kyle was seventeen. According to accounts of the court, the two were traveling on the U.S. 422 bypass in Union Township when Kyle hit an icy patch of road and slid out of control. The police reported that Kyle was traveling too fast for road conditions and that he should have known to slow down.
The lawsuit was filed by parents Joyce and David Piper on behalf of Stephen. Stephen suffered a severe brain injury, is unable to communicate, and is partially paralyzed. Stephen will need lifelong care as a result of his injuries. Attorney Dallas Hartman, Stephen's lawyer, explained that the compensation may seem high, but that it is going to help take care of Stephen for the rest of his life. The jury itemized $8.3 million, more than half of the $15.6 million, of the verdict was for future medical care. While severely impaired, Attorney Hartman has said that Stephen is expected to have normal life expectancy. However, although he is now only 17-years-old, Stephen will live the rest of his life with the mental capacity of a toddler, explained Hartman.
Attorney Hartman told reporters that the family did not initially want to pursue a court case because the two boys are brothers; however, after subpar handling of the situation by the insurance company, Hartman says that the Pipers essentially had no choice. Hartman continued that it is not uncommon to have family sue family in these types of situation to get compensation from an insurance company. Hartman went on to say that "Under our [justice] 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." Hartman also explained that insurance companies have historically tried to use family relationships to a victim's disadvantage, playing on parents' guilt and other such inter-familial issues.
"The law is blind to who it is who hurts us," said Hartman. While Hartman did not name Erie Insurance in the suit, he explained that although Kyle Piper is legally responsible to pay the amount decided upon by the jury, Hartman is confident that the insurance company will be footing most of the bill.
Kyle Piper, who is now attending college, says that he holds no bitterness over what has happened and that he fully understands the reason there had to be a lawsuit. Hartman simply explained that "It was doing the right thing for Stephen...if [Erie insurance] had done the right thing on behalf of Stephen in the beginning, this would have never gone to trial." As multiple lawsuits between the Pipers and Erie insurance continue, Hartman said that this particular verdict will be placed into a trust and used only for Stephen's healthcare costs.