A Texas jury has ordered a college student to pay over $21 million in damages after finding him grossly negligent for texting while driving and causing a fatal crash. The unanimous verdict is one of the largest to be obtained in a texting-while-driving case.
“This verdict sends a message loud and clear that the people of Texas will not tolerate this conduct,” said the lawyer in Houston who represented the plaintiffs. He added that the family of the victim hopes to use the verdict and publicity about the case to urge the state legislature to make texting while driving illegal in Texas.
In 2007, Jason Reed Vestal was driving his pickup truck down Highway 6 near Calvert, Texas, when he crossed the center-line and hit an oncoming car head-on. The crash killed the other driver, 21-year-old Megan Small, a student at Baylor University. It also injured Small’s friend Laura Gleffe, who was driving behind her and was run off the road by Vestal’s truck. The Small family turned to civil court after Vestal managed to evade all criminal charges.
A grand jury “no-billed” Vestal and the attorney general did not conduct an investigation into the cause of the crash. Vestal wasn’t drunk at the time, he wasn’t tired, and no witness reported seeing any obstruction in the road that would have made him swerve. So what caused the accident?”
The lawyer for the Small family said he became suspicious when he deposed Vestal, who insisted that he did not have his phone with him when he was driving. But subpoenaed phone records showed that Vestal had made 7 phone calls and sent 15 text messages during the 45 minutes he was on the road. Some of the messages were sent and received moments before the crash.
The Small’s attorney pointed out that Highway 6 is a notoriously busy and dangerous road even at the best of times. “It’s a very treacherous stretch, where there is not much margin of error,” he said. “So it was especially dangerous to be that distracted while driving there.”
Vestal, who is a graduate student at Texas A&M, declared bankruptcy at the start of the trial, thus the verdict was largely symbolic. The Small family announced that it would share any compensation they collect with Laura Gleffe.
“They will get some money from the insurance company,” said the Small’s attorney. “But of course it isn’t about the money. It never was. It’s about sending a message, and memorializing Megan.” (4/15) Excerpted from Trial Magazine