Two wrongful death cases involve diabetic reactions while driving company vehicles
Thursday, July 8, 2010
Two eerily-similar cases — both involving drivers who had a diabetic reaction that led to a fatal crash while behind the wheel of a company vehicle — reached conclusions in California recently, with families of the victims receiving multi-million-dollar payments, one the result of a settlement, the other awarded by a judge.
In July 2006, John Mayfield blacked out while driving a PG&E truck. He said the blackout was the result of a faulty insulin injector causing his blood sugar level to fall. Mayfield’s truck slammed into a group of cars stopped on an Interstate 280 off-ramp in San Jose, killing college students Mary Bernstein and Robert Conway.
Mayfield pleaded guilty to vehicular manslaughter and was sentenced to three years in prison. Conway’s family settled with PG&E, but Bernstein’s mother, Lisa Bernstein, filed a wrongful death suit against the utility, saying she wanted it to be held accountable. San Jose Mercury News reporter Tracey Kaplan wrote Bernstein wanted PG&E “to agree to more closely monitor workers’ health and driving records so this never happens to another family. She contends PG&E should have known Mayfield was hospitalized twice for failing to manage his diabetes and was involved in two other car accidents off the job.”
Bernstein has now agreed to a $5 million settlement. “I was unwilling to let Mary’s death go unnoticed,” Bernstein told the Mercury News. “I think Mary would approve because she really loved people and this agreement will make the roads safer for people.”
Kaplan added there was more to the settlement than a payout:
Under the terms of the agreement, PG&E agreed to record the resolution as a judgment, rather than a confidential settlement as is often the case. That means future accident victims will be able to look up the case, which could make it easier for them to negotiate a settlement. The $5 million payment also raises the value of a single college student’s life, Bernstein said, which typically is rated at under $2 million.
Jose Vega died under similar circumstances last September after a head-on crash with a Verizon Communications pickup driven by Mark Selander on Highway 101 in Santa Barbara. Selander drove the wrong way on the divided highway for at least five minutes before smashing into Vega’s minivan.
Selander and Verizon argued the crash resulted from a medical emergency similar to a heart attack or a stroke — in this case, the sudden onset of a hypoglycemic attack that caused Selander to go into a “twilight state.” But attorneys for Vega’s family pointed out Verizon knew Selander had frequent hypoglycemic attacks, as spelled out in a news release from Panish Shea & Boyle:
The evidence reflected that Selander had a long history of hundreds, if not thousands, of hypoglycemic attacks due to his uncontrolled type 1 diabetes. Selander testified in deposition that he informed his Verizon supervisors personally and by way of personnel file documentation of his type 1 diabetes and his problems with hypoglycemia. Plaintiffs’ evidence further demonstrated that despite Verizon being informed of these facts clearly reflecting that Selander was not fit to work with any dangerous machinery, Verizon still assigned Selander to job duties which included driving a large pickup truck on public highways.
In addition, Selander was assigned to work the graveyard shift and he worked alone…On September 23, 2009, Selander failed to control his insulin and carbohydrate levels causing a hypoglycemic event. Being familiar with the symptoms of hypoglycemia, Selander knew what all diabetics know–to consume food or juice immediately–and not endanger the public by getting into a vehicle and driving. Selander tried to make a run for the nearby 7-11 and slipped into a twilight state along the way.
Last week, a Santa Barbara County Superior Court judge agreed with the plaintiffs, ordering Verizion to pay $7 million to members of Vega’s family.
Lisa Bernstein wants to help prevent similar tragedies. Tracey Kaplan wrote Bernstein will push for a law “requiring every company in the state with a fleet of 25 cars or more to be automatically notified when an employee is ticketed or in an accident, as happens now with truckers and other commercial drivers.” PG&E agreed not to oppose such legislation as part of the settlement of Bernstein’s wrongful death suit.