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ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — An Albuquerque judge has entered a judgment of almost $80 million in a wrongful death lawsuit against Albuquerque Redi-Mix, Quintana Enterprises Inc. and onetime truck driver Truman Bahe, citing “reprehensible conduct” by the corporate entities.
One lawyer said the award may be a record in New Mexico.
Behind District Court Judge Shannon Bacon’s judgment Monday – which called a halt to 10 years of litigation and includes $60 million in punitive damages – is the story of the “slow and painful death” of Laura Miera, 48, on Oct. 2, 2002.
Miera had just dropped off her 14-year-old daughter, Casandra, at Jimmy Carter Middle School when a red tractor-trailer driven by Bahe and loaded with sand flew off Interstate 40 onto Unser NW at 8 a.m. According to the lawsuit, the semi had an expired registration, three brakes out of adjustment and a driver with two DWI charges before he was hired by Redi-Mix.
The semi hit Miera’s vehicle, pushing it against the curb and rolling over onto it. Miera was pinned in her car while sand rained down on top of her.
Jacob Vigil, who represented Miera’s family in the lawsuit, said counselors, teachers and students on their way to school began frantically trying to dig Miera out by hand. A school counselor grabbed Miera’s hand and told her to keep wiggling it while she prayed with her until Miera’s hand stopped moving.
“It was just heart-wrenching,” Vigil said.
Miera died of “compression asphyxiation,” according to her death certificate.
She was pronounced dead a little over an hour later, after heavy equipment in the area was used to lift the tractor-trailer.
Barbara Quintana, an officer and owner in Quintana Enterprises and Albuquerque Redi-Mix with her husband, John B. Quintana, told the Journal on Monday that she had not seen the judgment and referred any other comments to her attorney, whom she did not name.
A document in the court record includes a statement by Barbara Quintana, which says that although Bahe was not tested for controlled substances before he was hired, post-accident tests showed negative results for controlled substances and for alcohol.
The defendants have been represented by numerous attorneys in the years since the accident, according to the judge and Vigil.
In its answer to the initial complaint, the Quintanas denied violating any state or federal regulations, and said the cause of the accident and injuries alleged in the complaint resulted from acts by other persons, clearing the Quintanas of liability.
“They (the Quintanas) spent all their money on law firms, paying them to fight this family,” Vigil said. “My heroic little client, 14 when it happened, was an A student. She dropped out of school, hit rock bottom … . It just wrecked this family.”
Casandra Miera Camp, who testified at what became a nonjury trial last Friday, is now married with twin daughters and is going to college, Vigil said.
In an amended version of the lawsuit filed in May, Vigil alleged that the Quintanas’ first bankruptcy filing on May 2, 2011 – a week after they were individually named as defendants and shareholders of the companies – was filed only for the purpose of stalling a trial in state court, as was a subsequent Chapter 7 bankruptcy filing.
Albuquerque Redi-Mix transferred its assets to Albuquerque Gravel Products, which took over all of its employees and place of business, the complaint says.
The estate’s amended complaint claimed those transfers were fraudulent. The judge “deemed admitted” those claims in her judgment.
The judgment entered by Bacon on Friday noted that the defendants had been represented during the course of the case by “a multitude of attorneys” and that despite being ordered to show up for trial last week with substitute counsel, didn’t do so – except for Barbara Quintana, who appeared in person under a subpoena.
Bacon entered a default judgment as to liability, then went on to calculate compensatory damages after hearing testimony Friday, including testimony by the daughter.
She awarded compensatory damages to the estate of $16.74 million and $2 million to the daughter and $1 million to Miera’s husband, Jose, for loss of companionship.
Bacon then ordered $60 million in punitive damages against Albuquerque Redi-Mix, Quintana Enterprises, and John and Barbara Quintana.
The record, she wrote in the order, establishes that the conduct of the couple and their corporations was willful, and that it “endangered and continues to endanger the public at large, and caused the slow and painful death of Laura Miera.”
The court also ordered costs and post-judgment interest to the estate.
The state was not a defendant, but Vigil says regulatory authorities need to do more enforcement.
“This should get their attention and the attention of the regulatory agencies,” Vigil said. “Something needs to be done to make stronger laws to prevent (similar events) and to protect families out in the community from dangerous corporations like this.”
“We are all at risk,” he said. “Any one of us could face the same kind of death.”