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Texas Jury awards local family $24.4 million in damages

Posted on Aug 17, 2006

Jury awards local family $24.4 million in damages Toyota found not responsible for child’s injuries after five-week trial Kelly Prew News Editor A local jury found no fault Thursday with vehicle manufacturing giant Toyota Motor Corp. in a $100 million civil trial stemming from an accident in 2001 that left then 6-year-old Alex Barhona a ventilator-dependent quadriplegic. Jurors did, however, hold Levinge Transportation, of Willis, and the driver of the 18-wheeler that caused the accident responsible for a collective 80 percent of $24.4 million awarded for damages — possibly the biggest verdict in Walker County history. The 10-woman, two-man jury also decided plaintiff Yolanda Barhona was responsible for 20 percent of that total, considering her role in improperly seat belting Alex in the backseat of the 2001 Toyota Echo. Following the verdict, lawyers for both Toyota and the plaintiffs visited with jurors and responded to questions. “We’re pleased with the verdict and think the jury did the right thing,” said Karl Viehman, who represented Toyota. Plaintiffs’ lawyers, however, had mixed feelings. “Mike (Park) and I are disappointed that the jury did not find Toyota partially responsible for Alex’s injuries,” said attorney Will Durham, of local lawfirm Park and Durham. “We believe there was sufficient evidence the faulty tire retention caused some of his injuries, but the jury found the trucking company primarily responsible. We felt Toyota was partially responsible, and while we are disappointed with the verdict, we respect the jury’s decision.” Attorneys for the Barhona family, which includes CO-council from Watts Lawfirm of Houston, will make decisions in the next 30 days as to what step they will make following Thursday’s verdict, which could include an appeal or request for a new trial. For nearly five weeks, jurors heard testimony about potentially faulty spare tire retention and back seat latches in the Echo, saw videos about Alex Barhona’s life now, heard from forensic reconstructionists from both camps and even were shown articles in question on a full-size 2001 Echo on display in the courtroom. They were bombarded with photos and testimony concerning everything from head rest height to the specific locations of laundry baskets in the car at the time of the accident. Following the verdict, jurors expressed their concern for the child and compassion for the Barhona family, but in the end felt, collectively, they did the right thing. The group, all who are Walker County residents, spent more than 15 hours over three days in deliberation. “We were together most of the time during deliberations,” said juror Liesa Hackett when asked if the group was ever overwhelmingly divided on an issue. Jurors were asked to first decide whether or not there was a design defect in the 2001 Echo that was a producing cause of the injury to Alex Barhona, a two-part question which included whether or not Yolanda Barhona properly belted the child. Secondly, did the negligence of truck driver, Jerrold Young, Levinge Transportation or Yolanda Barhona, who was driving the Echo at the time of the accident, contribute to the child’s injury? Jurors answered yes to all three. A third question required the jury to respond as to what percentage of responsibility each had in the accident. Questions four and five were directly related to monetary award, in which Toyota was not held responsible. “First off, the Barhonas are a great family, a close family, and they’re doing their best to help Alex,” Durham said. “We’re disappointed he’s not going to get the care he needs. “It was a long trial, a very hard-fought trial and a hard decision for the jury to make.”

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