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Texas jury awards $352 million to family of paralyzed airport worker

An airplane fueling company driver said the sun was in his eyes when he struck a United Airlines employee and sent him flying across a tarmac.

HOUSTON (CN) — A Houston jury awarded more than $352 million late Monday to the family of a former United Airlines employee who was paralyzed when a van driver struck him from behind on an airport tarmac.

Ulysses Cruz, 50, had on a bright yellow vest and was holding bright orange wands, standard gear for his wing walker job, around 7:30 a.m. on Sept. 7, 2019, as he walked behind a United Airlines plane while it was towed away from a gate at George Bush Intercontinental Airport in Houston in preparation for a flight.

Though wing walkers’ bright clothing is supposed to signal any drivers on the tarmac to stop and yield to departing aircraft, Reginald Willis, then a supervisor for Allied Aviation Fueling Company of Houston, said the sun was shining in his eyes.

He struck Cruz from behind with his van. Cruz was thrown several feet and he landed hard on the concrete, as recounted in court records.

The accident paralyzed Cruz from the chest down. He was rushed to the hospital where doctors performed spine-stabilization surgery, which saved him from becoming paralyzed all the way up to his neck, his attorney, Randall Sorrels of Houston, said in an interview Tuesday.

But two days later, Cruz suffered a stroke that left him unable to use his right arm.

Cruz’s wife and two children sued Willis and Allied Aviation in November 2019 in Harris County district court, seeking more than $1 million on claims of negligence, gross negligence and vicarious liability.

Following a two-week trial and two days of deliberations, 11 members of the jury awarded Cruz’s family $352.7 million late Monday, one of the largest jury awards ever handed down in Harris County, home of Houston.

Sorrels said Cruz receives round-the-clock care from a team of nurses and caregivers, and his wife, Cecilia Cruz, is also taking a leading role in his care because she is a nurse. Still, Sorrels said, “They need more. They don’t have enough. They need more help.”

“It’s a really bad injury,” Sorrels added. “If they would have given him $450 million you’d still say, ‘Well that makes sense.’ It’s really bad. He has a brain injury. He can’t use his right arm, which is dominant.”

Sorrels explained that he did not ask for punitive damages for the Cruz family because that would have required a unanimous verdict.

The jury found Allied Aviation 70% responsible for the accident and Willis 30% responsible, rejecting the defense’s claims that United Airlines and Cruz himself were partly to blame.

Sorrels said the defense called an expert to the stand who claimed Cruz didn’t have situational awareness: “You know, you’ve got to know what’s going on around you type of thing.”

The defense also argued that Cruz’s estimated $30 million in medical bills for his past and future care was excessive.

For Sorrels, the verdict was especially satisfying because Allied Aviation and Willis hired one of the best defense attorneys in the country, Rusty Hardin, to represent them.

Hardin led the appeal of accounting firm Arthur Andersen after a federal jury convicted it of obstruction of justice in 2002 for its role in the Enron scandal and convinced the U.S. Supreme Court to unanimously overturn the conviction.

He is also frequently hired by professional athletes. Most notably, he obtained the acquittal in 2012 of former MLB All-Star pitcher Roger Clemens after Clemens was charged with obstruction of justice and lying to Congress about his steroid use.

Hardin is now defending Houston Texans quarterback Deshaun Watson against allegations made in more than 20 lawsuits by therapists who claim Watson sexually assaulted or harassed them during massage sessions.

Hardin said an appeal is in the works for the Cruz case.

“They received a very large verdict that we disagree with,” he said Tuesday, reached by phone. “But we always respect jury verdicts. And we’ll wait now to see what the appellate courts say. We do strongly disagree with the conclusions and amount.”

Like Sorrels, Hardin said the $352.7 million award was one of the largest jury verdicts ever in Harris County, if not the largest.

Sorrels said he’s confident the verdict will be upheld. “I don’t think it will be reduced on appeal,” he said. “And they [Allied Aviation] have $500 million in insurance coverage. So we’re within the insurance coverage.”

Allied Aviation operates jet fuel storage depots at 26 major airports and fuels around 1.9 million commercial flights per year, according to its website.

The general manager of its operations at George Bush Intercontinental Airport declined to say if Willis, the driver who struck Cruz, is still with the company, and referred all questions to its counsel.

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