A jury in Amador County, near Sacramento, CA, returned a record personal injury verdict of $3,695,978.59 for injuries suffered in a 2009 automobile collision by single mother Tara Frisk when another driver blacked out and crashed into her car.
Defendant Catherine Margaret Cowan, age 53 at the time of the incident, had been a Type 1 insulin-dependent diabetic since age 14. On the evening of the collision she blacked out from low blood sugar, crossed the center line, and struck the plaintiff’s vehicle.
“The jury awarded the $1 in nominal damages that I argued for. I urged them to send a message to the defendant that her behavior was not acceptable in Amador County,” Sigel said.
Frisk, a resident of Amador County, was 25 at the time of the accident and 30 at the time of trial. She is a single mother to three daughters who are now ages 2, 6, and 11. Before the collision she did administrative office work.
The collision caused in chronic neck pain and intrascapular pain. She can no longer ride horseback, tend to the animals at her parents’ ranch, or split logs, which were all activities she enjoyed before the collision. Now, activities of daily living such as housekeeping, carrying her daughter, carrying groceries all have the potential to worsen her neck pain.
The collision occurred on Highway 49 after the defendant left the Kmart in Jackson headed for a Chinese restaurant less than one mile away. When she arrived at Kmart the defendant locked her keys in her car. She then phoned her husband who brought her a spare key. While waiting for him, the defendant felt that her blood sugar was starting to get low.
Despite this feeling, the defendant did nothing to address her condition before getting behind the wheel. Instead she decided to drive to the restaurant to eat. Cowan has no memory after leaving the Kmart parking lot in Jackson.
The accident took place on Highway 49 on the border of Amador and Calaveras counties on a two-lane bridge. Frisk was heading home with her 17-month old child who was in a child seat in the back. The defendant was headed in the opposite direction.
The defendant’s DMV record showed no history of other collisions or medical restrictions. Test results in the defendant’s medical records admittedly demonstrated that her diabetes was well controlled.
The defendant’s husband also testified at trial that in the moments before the defendant got behind the wheel that she seemed totally normal. He saw no outward signs that his wife was suffering any symptoms of low blood sugar and she failed to report any subjective concerns to him before driving away. Cowan denied liability both for causing the collision and for the plaintiff’s damages.
Extensive medical damages and wage loss
Attorney Sigel argued that a reasonable diabetic should do something to bring up their blood sugar before driving, once they feel it is decreasing. He also argued that the risk of a blackout due to falling blood sugar levels was known to the defendant and that she never should have attempted to operate her vehicle while feeling the onset of low blood sugar-related symptoms.
Frisk ultimately required a single level disc replacement in her cervical spine. While the surgery alleviated much of the pain caused by the disc that was damaged as a result of the collision, the plaintiff is still symptomatic and limited in her recreational activities.
The plaintiff’s surgeon testified that she will likely need a double-level fusion surgery sometime in the future. The defendant’s retained orthopedic surgery expert testified that he could not relate Plaintiff’s cervical disc injuries, and need for surgery, to the subject collision.
The plaintiff’s pain management doctor testified that she will likely require pain management care and medication for the rest of her life. The defense heavily disputed the reasonable value of the past and future care as well as the need for the past disc replacement and future fusion surgeries.
Before trial, the plaintiff amended the complaint to include a claim for punitive damages. In closing argument, Mr. Sigel argued that the defendant’s conduct was egregious to the extent that it justified an award of punitive damages to punish the defendant and deter similar conduct in the future. Mr. Sigel argued that the jury should award Ms. Frisk the full measure of her past and future damages and only punish the defendant in the amount of $1.00 to send her the message that her conduct was not acceptable in the community.
The jury awarded:
“We are very pleased that the jury held the defendant responsible for her actions. Diabetes affects so many of us and it is important that people know they have to manage the disease in a way that doesn’t put others at risk. We hope the jury’s verdict sends the message that if you know your blood sugar is dropping you need to take care of it before you get behind the wheel,” said Mr. Sigel following the verdict.
The verdict is the largest personal injury award in Amador County’s history. The case is Tara Frisk v. Catherine Margaret Cowan, Superior Court of California, County of Amador, Case No.: 10-Cv-6852, Judge Arnold Rosenfield.