Sued for damages in connection to a 2014 Hampton Beach car accident, the state and a construction company are challenging a verdict directing them to pay 70 percent of a $9 million payout to one of the victims in the crash.
Lawyers representing the state and R.S. Audley Inc. are arguing the Jan. 19 verdict was “not based upon the evidence or the applicable law, but was instead the result of sympathy for the plaintiffs,” attorney Douglas Steere wrote in one of several court motions he filed last week. The verdict required the state pay 40 percent of the award, the construction company pay 30 percent and the driver, Remi Gross-Santos, pay the remainder.
The verdict followed a nine-day civil suit trial in Rockingham Superior Court which crash victim Karen Weinhold, 73, and her husband sued the state, R.S. Audley and the driver that struck her. Weinhold and her friend, Lisa Beaudry, were walking along Ocean Boulevard at North Beach when a teen driver fell asleep at the wheel which caused his car to cross the road and strike the women who were on the other side of the street.
The Weinholds sued R.S. Audley for implementing what they alleged was a dangerous traffic plan that directed pedestrians away from ongoing seawall construction work to the west side of Ocean Boulevard, and they alleged the state was liable for approving the plan. Beaudry filed a similar suit but recently settled out of court, according to Harris.
Attorneys representing the state and R.S. Audley jointly filed motions asking a judge to reverse the verdict to favor the state, to set aside the verdict and order a new trial, or to have a judge lower the amount of damages. Douglas Steere, representing the state, also filed a motion arguing the verdict surpassed a statutory limit on what can be sought from the state in court. He cited a limitation under state law for a party to sue a state agency is $475,000 per claimant and $3,750,000 per a single incident, or the proceeds from any insurance policy procured by the state, whichever is greater.
Steere also wrote the verdict was based on the jury’s motivation to ensure the award was collectible by attributing the “deep-pocket” defendants with the bulk of the award. He wrote the jury demonstrated “complete disregard” for Gross-Santos’ reckless conduct and clear liability by only requiring he pay 30 percent of the award. Gross-Santos was 17 at the time and convicted of second-degree assault, though acquitted on drunken driving charges in his 2015 trial. He also argued no reasonable jury could find the state 10 percent more at fault for the crash than Gross-Santos, Steere having told the jury in court the crash was solely caused by the teen’s choice to drive on little sleep after a late-night graduation party.
Steere and R.S. Audley’s attorney, Robert Murphy, argued the traffic plan was safe, pointing out that both the current police chief and his predecessor testified the sidewalks on the west side of Ocean Boulevard are legal footpaths. Scott Harris, who represents the Weinholds said he intends to file a response by Friday. He argued the traffic plan was unnecessary, as pedestrians were able to remain on the east side of Ocean Boulevard while construction was being done on the seawall in past years. He argued Weinhold would never have been struck by Gross-Santos had she not been forced to cross the road.
Weinhold was awarded $8.5 million, her husband Chuck receiving $500,000 in addition. The award covers costs for medical bills, lost wages and loss of enjoyment caused by the crash.