Woman’s traumatic highway accident exposes dangers of unsecured loads, inspires new laws
Federici v. U-Haul Intl., Wash., King Co. Super., No. 06-2-11563-5 SEA, Nov. 9, 2007.
When Maria Federici’s life changed forever, it was truly in an instant. As the 24-year-old college graduate drove home from her shift at a Kirkland, Washington, restaurant, her car’s windshield was impaled by a piece of wood that struck her with such force she barely survived. Despite setbacks during litigation, Maria’s attorneys were able to help her in her quest against the trailer rental company that they felt was responsible.
Earlier in the same evening, as he loaded an entertainment center into the U-Haul trailer he had rented, James Hefley noted a lack of internal tie down points in the trailer and improvised by securing the entertainment center with three rachet straps he attached to the trailer’s outer edges. When the entertainment center fell out of the trailer on a highway, its 30-pound base flew through the air and crashed through Maria’s windshield, hitting her across the eyes.
As a result of the accident, the bones in Maria’s face were completely shattered. She suffered permanent brain damage, the loss of both eyes, and her senses of taste and smell, among other impairments. Even after seven reconstructive surgeries, her face bears little resemblance to how it looked before the accident. Maria, who lives with her mother, now requires a service dog to get around and hopes to soon be able to live on her own.
Shortly after the accident, Maria and her mother were referred to AAJ member Simon Forgette of Kirkland, who took her case after examining the U-Haul trailer involved and seeing clear indications that it was unsafe for do-it-yourself movers. Together with Seattle attorney William Leedom, Forgette filed suit on behalf of Maria against U-Haul and Hefley.
In addition to claiming each party acted negligently, Maria’s suit also claimed that U-Haul’s “RO model” trailer was not reasonably safe as a result of its low tailgate and the absence of internal tie down points, and that U-Haul failed to warn renters that large items can fall out of an open trailer. “U-Haul failed to provide any instructions to renters regarding how cargo loaded into RO trailers could be secured,” Forgette says. “U-Haul’s load restraining safety system consisted primarily of leaving it up to the do-it-yourself mover to secure the load.”
Maria’s accident was widely reported in the local media, and interest in the case was reignited before the trial, when the court refused to admit evidence that Maria—who had one glass of wine the evening of the accident—had a blood alcohol level over the legal limit, presumably a key piece of U-Haul’s defense strategy.
Forgette believes it is important for people to know exactly why the evidence was kept out. The computer enzyme analyzer used by the hospital to analyze blood assigns the same color marker to a chemical known as NADH as it does to alcohol, then prints results based on the color detected by the machine. “When you lose as much blood as Maria did, your body produces the chemical NADH,” Forgette said. “The hospital’s analyzer wrongly read the NADH in Maria’s blood as alcohol.”
Although newspaper headlines about her purported blood alcohol level must have made Maria’s life even more of a struggle than it already was, the widespread publicity of her ordeal has lead to some meaningful results. Since the incident, the state of Washington has passed two laws concerning unsecured loads.
The first, known as “Maria’s Law,” increases the penalty for causing injury or death by failing to secure a load to a gross misdemeanor with a penalty of up to one year in jail and a $5,000 fine. Before Maria’s Law, the penalty for such an event was a minor traffic citation and a maximum fine of $250. The second law makes victims of such incidents eligible to receive money from the state’s crime victims compensation fund. Maria’s Law has already been used in the prosecution of two men whose unsecured load caused a fatal accident on an interstate near Shoreline, Washington.
After a seven-week trial, the jury returned a verdict in favor of Maria for $15.51 million. The jury found Hefley 33 percent liable and U-Haul 67 percent liable. Maria was not found to be negligent. The verdict will help Maria, who was able to afford her surgeries only because of donations, live the independent life she craves.
Forgette notes that because Washington is a state in which defendants in cases where plaintiffs are free of fault are jointly and severally liable and Hefley has filed for bankruptcy, U-Haul is responsible for the entire verdict. “We believe this result is appropriate because U-Haul manufactured the unsafe open trailer and rented it to Hefley without any guidance on load securement,” Forgette says.
U-Haul is appealing the verdict.
Although U-Haul stopped making RO trailers in 2004, there are still over 2,000 of them being rented by U-Haul, and Maria’s attorneys hope the verdict will help get all of them off the road. “What happened to Maria could happen to any of us,” Forgette says.