ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — It might have been easier for Wendy and Eric Hein to settle the wrongful death case they filed against the company that built the semitrailer under which their 16-year-old son was killed.
But what was important, what was crucial, to them was that Utility Trailer Manufacturing Co. and other companies like it be for once held publicly accountable for what the Heins argue is the trucking companies’ egregious failure to assure the safety of their products on the highway.
And the truth is, nothing has been easier since they lost Riley in such a horrible, fiery, preventable way.
“UTM offered to settle multiple times,” Eric Hein said. “But they were going to require us to sign a confidentiality agreement and everything would get swept under the rug. We didn’t want that. We wanted the public to understand what is going on out there. And we wanted public pressure to stop it.”
Sunlight, Wendy Hein said, is the best disinfectant.
So the Heins went to court.
After three years, a two-week trial in state District Court in Santa Fe and six hours of jury deliberation, the Heins got their sunlight – $18.9 million worth.
Last Friday, the Heins won their case, the jurors finding that UTM was negligent in designing its semitrailer without side underride guards, which could have prevented vehicles from sliding under the side of the trailer, and that this failure resulted in Riley’s death on Nov. 13, 2015.
The verdict award was $42 million, which includes $2 million apiece to each parent for loss of consortium. Because jurors found UTM 45% responsible – the other 55% blamed on the truck driver, who was not a defendant in the lawsuit – the sum was accordingly reduced to $18.9 million.
It is one of the first and biggest legal victories involving side underride guards.
The money, though, was not the goal, the Heins said. The message was.
It was for Riley.
“He was there with us in court,” Wendy Hein said. “I wear some of his ashes in a locket around my neck.”
Eric Hein carried some of his son’s ashes in his coat pocket to give him strength when he testified. Both parents and older daughter Rachel wore wristbands that read “Release Your Inner Riley,” a tribute to their happy, spirited, buoyant boy.
“He would have been telling us, ‘Stick it to the man!’ ” Eric Hein said with a wistful laugh.
And, oh, how they needed him by their side as they went through two weeks of maddening arguments for and against side underride guards and the gruesome, painful details of how Riley died, screaming for help.
It was the morning of a very unlucky Friday the 13th. Riley, a Manzano High School junior, was up early and out of the family home in Tijeras, and was driving west in the right lane of Interstate 40 in Tijeras Canyon on his way to band practice when a big rig veered out of the center lane and struck Riley’s Honda Civic.
The collision forced the Honda under the trailer from the side, dragged the car for a half-mile, scraping it along a concrete barrier until it burst into flames.
Testimony from the state Office of the Medical Investigator drew gasps and tears from jurors who heard that Riley was alive when the flames enveloped his car and then him, burning him over 75% of his body.
“It’s the worst death we can conceive of and that is the death Utility Trailer Manufacturing assigned this boy to,” Heins’ attorney Randi McGinn told jurors during closing arguments last Thursday.
So gruesome was Riley’s death that jurors were told they did not have to look at photos of his charred remains.
A phalanx of attorneys for the California-based UTM, led by Jeffrey Croasdell, argued that side underride guards, which are not required by the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration and the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, are ineffective, problematic, cost-prohibitive and unnecessary.
Moreover, he opined, a semitrailer fitted with such guards is even more dangerous than one without.
“You can’t force Utility to put a dangerous item on its trailers,” he said.
But McGinn countered that companies like UTM owe it to the public to devise workable guards rather than ignore the problem and disregard the 200 lives lost on average each year to side underride crashes.
“Instead of fixing it, they fought it,” McGinn said.
The Heins, who moved to California after their son’s death, say they hope their victory in court sends a message to the truck industry.
“They have known about this issue since 1970 and failed to even try to develop an underride guard to protect the public, which is why the jury found Utility Trailer Manufacturing negligent in Riley’s death,” Eric Hein said. “We are hoping this verdict is a catalyst for change.”
A Government Accountability Office report released this year also recommends that federal regulators take steps to collect better data on underride guard crashes and share information with police departments in identifying underride crashes.
And the Heins, along with other families, are advocating for the passage of the Stop Underrides Act – Senate Bill 665 and House Bill 1511 – introduced earlier this year. Despite bipartisan support from some congressional heavy hitters, the bill has yet to gain traction.
But it will, they hope. It must. It will not be easy, they say, but nothing is.
UpFront is a front-page news and opinion column. Comment directly to Joline at 823-3603, firstname.lastname@example.org or follow her on Twitter @jolinegkg. Go to www.abqjournal.com/letters/new to submit a letter to the editor.