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Jury orders $18.9M settlement over fiery tractor-trailer crash

Copyright © 2019 Albuquerque Journal

SANTA FE – A Santa Fe jury verdict delivered Friday orders a truck-trailer manufacturer to pay $18.9 million in damages to the estate and parents of a 16-year-old killed in a fiery crash on Intestate 40 east of Albuquerque in November 2015.

Mike Sievers, an attorney for the family of Riley Hein of Tijeras, said the family hopes the verdict “sends a message” to the truck-trailer industry to take measures to prevent underride crashes, where vehicles are forced or become stuck underneath trailers in the space between the trailer and the road.

Sievers said Hein’s family didn’t want a confidential settlement. “They wanted a verdict to tell the industry they need to do something about this problem,” he said.

Hein, at the time of the crash a junior at Manzano High School, was driving a Honda Civic west in the right lane on I-40 through Tijeras Canyon on his way to band practice when a tractor-trailer veered over the center line and struck the Honda, trapping it under the trailer.

The car was dragged for nearly a half-mile and was scraped along a concrete barrier before it burst into flames. Hein was burned over 75% of his body and died at the scene.

Some trailers now have underride guards or bars that help prevent cars from ending up underneath.

That was not case with the trailer involved in the Hein crash, made by Utility Trailer Manufacturing Inc.

“To date, the federal government has determined that side-impact guards have not been shown to be technologically or economically feasible,” UTM’s attorneys wrote in response to the Hein family’s suit.

But in Friday’s verdict, after a two-week trial, the jury found that UTM and the truck driver, who was not a party in the suit, were negligent in Riley Hein’s death.

The verdict assessed damages of $42 million – $38 million to his estate and $2 million for each of his parents Eric and Wendy Hein for loss of consortium – and found the driver 55% responsible and UTM 45% responsible.

Since the driver was not a defendant, his share won’t be paid. UTM’s portion comes out to $18.9 million.

UTM was accused in the suit of manufacturing and selling a dangerous and defective product that contributed to Riley Hein’s death.

Siever said he and fellow attorney Randi McGinn were glad “to represent his beautiful family and to bring justice for Riley” and, like the family, hope the verdict will have national impact.

Earlier this year, legislation was introduced in Congress to require side and front underride guards, and update standards for rear guards. The Heins traveled to Washington for the introduction of the bills.

Trucking groups have argued the guards add too much weight and wear out trailers sooner.

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